|photo from Old South High blog|
Thank you, Chairman Ceuvas and other members of the Board, for this opportunity to address my concerns about how our community can better serve the increasing numbers of mentally ill men and women in our local jail.
I know you are in the early stages of determining how to respond to the final version of the Moseley Architects' proposal due this month, and I understand it may include a space for people needing mental health treatment. As a therapist, I find that heartening, but I also have some serious concerns.
As you see from the copy of Thursday's op ed piece on this issue you have in front of you, we currently have the most meager budget for mental health services of any regional jail in our area, one that pays for only 10% of the personnel time as does the new RWS Regional Jail, for example, with a total of 375 beds, and only 5% of the mental health personnel time as the Winchester Regional Jail, with 600 inmates.
So when someone is considered at risk for suicide at our Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail, for example, the staff there often feel they have no choice but to put such inmates in restraint chairs or to strip them and place them in the isolated padded cell, sometimes for hours on end. There are simply no counselors of any kind available.
I applaud any improvement in this area we could provide in a new facility. But just creating physical space doesn't provide clinicians for a viable mental health program. To staff such a program would require an additional budget of at least $100,000 a year, even for only two mental health clinicians. Compare that to the clearly inadequate $18,000 ($9000 from the County) the Jail pays the Community Services Board for the services of one very part time nurse practitioner to meet the psychotropic med needs of a population of 400 plus people at a mere three hours a week.
With the additional financial burden of funding a new multimillion dollar facility, to say nothing of the additional cost of staffing and maintaining it, how can we expect to have even more money to invest in an adequate mental health staff, given the fact that we currently feel we can afford only $9000 a year for such services?
A lot of people I talk with in our community wonder whether it wouldn't be wiser to continue to rent available jail space at Middle River for the time being, at what may be a bargain compared to new construction and personnel costs we're looking at now, regardless of what we decide to build. And then to invest more dollars in our CSB, for example, to enable it to provide more adequate mental health and drug treatment programs that could help keep as many people as possible from having to become incarcerated in the first place.
Gemeinschaft Home, an already existing local treatment and reentry program, could be a model for the kind of structured environment many drug offenders could be assigned to as an alternative to incarceration--before they get into the criminal justice system rather than after they have served a sentence. The Fairfield Center is also prepared to handle cases through their Restorative Justice program that could divert many offenders from our courts and our jails (see the article on the McDonnells in front of you).
All of these kinds of programs have been proven to be more cost-effective, and just far more effective, period, than incarceration in many cases. We will still always need to have a facility such as the one on Liberty Street to house violent offenders and for those who may represent a flight risk, as well as for those fail to take advantage of the kinds of alternative work-based programs our community could provide for low risk offenders. But if we were able to get by with 70 jail beds prior to 1995, we shouldn't need over six times that number in just two decades, when our population has increased a mere 25% during that period, if my numbers are right.
I close with a recent statement by Ken Cuchinelli, our former Virginia Attorney General:
“For far too long, the only answer to decreasing crime was to put more people in prison. We built prisons at rates we didn’t need and couldn’t afford, especially for non-violent offenders. Now, we know there are alternatives that cost less and work better. I am proud to sign on with the Right on Crime initiative to help fix this problem by making cost effective, data driven public safety decisions that reduce recidivism rates.”
NOTE: Here's an online petition to the local Community Corrections Board, which is to have a meeting that's open to the public to consider the Moseley Architects proposal on December 8, and to members of the Harrisonburg City Council and to Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, who are to approve it by December 31. Even f you have already signed a hard copy of the petition, please circulate and share this link as widely as possible.