NEXT STEPS: As jail nears completion, leaders focus on mental health programs it may offer

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HANCOCK COUNTY — As officials oversee the physical parts of the county’s new jail as it nears completion, they’re also thinking about something they want to see happen inside the building.

Plans are underway to help inmates with mental health and substance use disorder needs, along with a vision for growing those services beyond the cell blocks and throughout the local justice system. Several entities are developing the strategy in an effort to improve mental health throughout the county.

The 110,000-square-foot, 450-bed jail is being built on 20 acres north of U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E.

For the past six months, representatives of Hancock Health’s community outreach arm — Healthy365 — and Hancock County’s law enforcement and justice systems have been working on what navigation for mental health and substance use services could consist of in the new jail. The team has been gathering information for county officials as they work to decide what to fund and how to fund it.

Amanda Everidge, director of community health improvement for Healthy365, told leaders at a recent Hancock County Budget Committee meeting that the goal of the initiative is to improve mental health and access to mental health care in the community, as well as reduce recidivism and stigma toward seeking help for mental health.

In their work, the team relied on the “sequential intercept” model, which details how individuals with mental and substance use disorders come into contact with and move through the criminal justice system. The model is used to identify resources and service gaps in a community.

Everidge said they wanted to address their efforts not only from their perspectives, but also from those going through the justice system.

“Mental health and addiction doesn’t just look at socioeconomic status, it doesn’t look at age, race, gender,” Everidge said. “It affects and can affect absolutely anybody. Great people can make poor decisions; great people can find themselves in need; and great people can find themselves in our justice system.”

The county has budgeted for two navigators at the jail in 2022. The new county employees, who are intended to have backgrounds in a social services field, will meet with inmates to understand their home situations as well as their mental health and substance use disorder needs while guiding them toward services they need.

“They’re truly there to help them understand the individual and to help guide them through that system and to act as that person who’s communicating with all of the parties and then helping to support that prior to a discharge or release,” Everidge said.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said he’s waiting until after the building is operational to hire professionals in those roles.

“Because it’s really going to take a new facility with space to be able to manage all this,” Burkhart said.

Substantial completion of the jail is slated for next month, but there will still be plenty more to do after that, he continued. He hopes to move in inmates in February 2022.

Ideas for external navigation also came out of the team’s efforts, which would be available to those not only in jail but throughout the county’s justice system.

“It would be very helpful if you had that connector on the outside, because if you’re doing all this work inside the jail, and you don’t have a way to connect to someone outside of the jail, you’re going to lose people,” Everidge said.

She noted while Healthy365 already provides external navigation to the community with its connection center, the organization doesn’t currently have the resources to do it on a scale that would accommodate the entire justice system.

One possibility for securing external navigation that officials are exploring is funding that the county is receiving from the American Rescue Plan.

Another component that came out of the team’s recommendations was 911 data gathering. Everidge said diving into what kinds of mental health-related emergency calls that are coming in, what their challenges are and any trends emerging among them could pave the way for future improvements.

“Utilizing the data to help truly drive what we’re doing is going to be I think very important to ensure we’re being good stewards of the funding that’s coming through,” she said.

The information gives county officials plenty to think about as they look toward the future.

“I think going forward we need to dive into how much we’re going to commit to this from all our funds,” said Jim Shelby, a Hancock County Council member.

The team’s suggestions ranged from fairly inexpensive and less intensive practices like 911 data gathering, to more complex ideas like mobile crisis teams that would respond to calls and support law enforcement, a strategy that’s been gaining steam nationally.

Burkhart said he’s also exploring potential programming for in and out of the jail on topics like parenting, education, addiction and job skills.

“That navigation piece in there will help support those programs and facilitate those programs because it’s that navigation, it’s that education, it’s that rehabilitation, it’s all that working together to make sure that that person may not come back to jail, and then working with the outside navigation in conjunction,” Burkhart said. “We’ll get to that; we’re just not there yet.”

Eventually Burkhart would like to get to a point in which individuals involved in mental health emergencies who don’t necessarily need to be incarcerated can be diverted from jail to some kind of softer facility where they can receive the help they need. Such situations could involve someone acting violently at home, or who is off their medication for mental health needs, officials said.

“There may have been a crime committed, but why was a crime committed? Because there’s a mental health issue going on; there’s a crisis going on,” Burkhart said. “We can always come back and file a charge if we need to, but if it’s truly a mental health crisis, we need to get them help and not incarcerate them. You get them in the criminal justice system, and they never get out. I’m just sick of it.”