Treating mental illness in Pima County jail

Published: Mar. 22, 2016 at 9:33 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Mental illness is in the spotlight on Friday, Jan. 8 as southern Arizona remembers the deadly shooting five years ago that left six people dead and even more hurt.

In the week leading up to the 5-year anniversary, both the Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff's Department resolved potentially dangerous situations with men believed to be living with mental illness.

Both suspects face criminal charges, but what happens to someone with mental illness who is sentenced to time in jail?

Approximately 60 percent of the population at Pima County Detention Center has some sort of need when it comes to mental health, according to department records. Corrections Chief India Davis said the jail averages 32,000 to 35,000 bookings annually.

That would mean that jail staff handles somewhere between 19,200 and 21,000 cases involving some form of mental illness each year. Davis said everyone in the jail, approximately 600 employees, is trained in mental-health first aid. She said they all need to be aware of who could be suffering from any sort of physical or mental illness.

"That's not easy to do," she said. "We're almost acting in a social capacity to help them get out of jail and hopefully not come back because nobody benefits from them coming back."

But many of them do, according to Davis. She said staff will cross check an individual's name with local agencies and pharmacies to obtain any background information or medical records when they're first booked into the jail.

They attempt to continue any medication, therapy or other care, even after a person leaves the jail, according to Davis.

"We do the best that we can to release them with at least the medications that they need to get to their next appointment," she said. "But a lot of times they don't go to that next appointment."

More than $1.5 million of the jail's medical budget is meant for mental and behavioral health. Davis said it may seem like a lot, but the money goes quickly because of how many people are in need of some sort of support or treatment.

Only about 30 people in the jail required mental health treatment when Davis first started in 1996. Twenty years later, she said the demand has grown to the point that it's time to consider alternative solutions.

"What do you do with those people who can't really be out in the public because their behavior is so erratic and dangerous, but they're only committing petty crimes and maybe don't need to be locked away in a jail," Davis said.

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