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Program seeks to expand mental health access in jails

Jail aerial

The Calhoun County Jail, opened in 1986, is shown in a recent view. Alabama 202 can be seen in the top left corner.

Alabama’s state government has plans to expand a program that provides mental health care for people in county jails, mental health advocates say, although it’s unclear whether Calhoun County will be one of the jurisdictions affected by the change. 

“One goal is to make sure everyone who’s booked into a jail is screened for mental illness,” said Katie Clampit, a program coordinator for the Dannon Project, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that operates re-entry programs for inmates. 

Since 2018, the Dannon Project has received grants with the state to implement a program called Stepping Up, designed to get mental health providers into local jails to provide mental health care. 

Clampit says the program provides funds for mental health agencies to develop partnerships with sheriffs’ offices. The mental health agencies do an initial mental health screening of new inmates — asking, for instance, if they have suicidal thoughts or hear voices — then follow up with mental health care if the inmate has a clear mental health problem. 

Law enforcement officials have long complained that, due to a lack of residential mental health facilities in the state, many people with mental illness wind up in local jails. 

“The jail staff are simply not equipped to deal with mental illness. It’s not their job,” Clampit said. 

According to a report earlier this month by Alabama Daily News, the Stepping Up program is in place in 19 counties and is set for expansion to 17 more in the 2021 fiscal year, under a $500,000, two-year contract with the Alabama Department of Mental Health. 

Clampit said the program is in place in counties as populous as Shelby and as small as Cherokee. Calhoun County isn’t currently part of the program, she said, and it’s still not clear which counties will be included in the expansion. The nonprofit is taking applications from counties now, she said. 

It’s unclear whether Calhoun County would participate. Attempts to reach Sheriff Matthew Wade for comment weren’t successful. 

Retired Calhoun County chief deputy Jon Garlick, who for years was the mental health officer for the sheriff’s office, said the need for better mental health care is real, though the issue may need a much larger fix. 

He said the county jail typically has screened for some mental health issues, such as suicidal thoughts or drug addiction. 

“Anxiety or depression, we don’t screen for that, because anybody who comes into a jail is going to be anxious or depressed whether they have an underlying mental health problem or not,” he said. 

He said the bigger problem is a lack of residential psychiatric health care for people in mental health crisis. Without that care, people with mental illness often don’t get any sort of intervention until someone calls the police. And police, he said, have limited tools at their disposal. 

“Once you de-escalate them, the question is what you do with them. We can leave them here or we can take them to the jail,” he said.

Garlick said he believes the state should set up emergency mental health facilities, similar to emergency rooms, where people could be held up to 72 hours if needed.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.