HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials are developing a program to treat inmates in the county jail who need mental health services.
Representatives from the sheriff’s department and county probation office are laying the groundwork for a program that would identify severely mentally ill inmates — those showing signs of suicidal behavior or disorders such as schizophrenia — and connect them with professional counseling treatment.
Sheriff Mike Shepherd said the new initiative will relieve stress on jail staff and could ultimately reduce the number of repeat offenders who commit crimes as a result of untreated mental illness. In turn, he hopes it could ease overcrowding in the jail; last week, the jail was housing 177 inmates in a facility with capacity for 157.
A cost for the service has not been estimated yet, said Brad Burkhart, Hancock County Sheriff’s chief deputy, adding that the department is working with the county council to identify a fund to finance the program.
County officials expect to learn more details in coming weeks, when they plan to sign a contract with a mental health care provider. That provider would be paid on a rolling basis, depending on how many inmates are referred to the service, commissioner Brad Armstrong said.
Under plans for the new program, two staff members from the county probation office would assess inmates referred to them by the jail staff.
Both staff members, Kevin Minnick and Amy Ikerd, are licensed to assess individuals suffering from mental illness.
After Minnick or Ikerd identify patients, jail officers will transfer inmates to a hospital for treatment.
Treatment would be based on the severity of the patient’s needs, Shepherd said. Some issues might be controlled by a simple prescription, while others could require a stay in a hospital or treatment facility where an inmate could receive regular counseling services before they return to the county jail, Shepherd said.
The jail commonly has inmates who likely qualify for mental health treatment, but the facility isn’t equipped to house — much less treat — them, Shepherd said.
“We’re not equipped to handle them, but we end up with them because there’s really no other place to put them,” he said.
Armstrong hopes the program will be used as a resource to treat inmates fighting addiction, which can lead to mental health issues, he said.
The county would pay for inmates who aren’t insured for health coverage, Armstrong said.
Without treatment, unstable inmates pose a threat to themselves, along with other inmates and jail staff, Ikerd said.
Delivering treatment to inmates in need of services would relieve that burden, she said.
“We can’t keep them in jail; we can’t put them in prison; we don’t really have a place to put them,” she said.
The probation office is beginning to look into options for other, less intensive treatment programs for inmates — particularly those fighting addiction — that could be delivered at the jail, Ikerd said.