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Local jails not a good last resort for mentally ill

A major topic to be brought up in next year’s state legislative session is sure to be jails being used as holding facilities for people with mental health issues.

That was discussed at a Local Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting Tuesday afternoon, where Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith solicited ideas to take to the 2015 legislative session.

He won’t be the only one asking for help with the situation.

One hundred twenty convicted criminals in Crook County are on a waiting list — to serve their sentences, said Oregon State Patrol Lt. Steve Mitchell. The jail in Benton County is often closed because they are unable to take in any more people until others are released.

And a large percentage of those in all of them — Curry County included — suffer from mental illnesses that can rile fellow inmates and put jail staff in danger.

Many people suffering from untreated mental health problems often find themselves in jail, where they are unable to obtain — particularly in poorer counties such as Curry — the resources they need to regain their health. Addiction plays a major role in it, as well.

“Our biggest problem is we don’t have enough hospital beds,” said Ken Dukek, the new director of Curry Community Health (CCH). “And then, when you look at the number of beds, other counties are buying up (any available) beds (to rent for their own mental health inmates). We need a regional mental health residential treatment facility.”

A day in the life

Gold Beach Police Chief Dixon Andrews said local law enforcement has a conundrum. He cited certain people with whom police are constantly in contact — sometimes several times a day — for low-level crimes.

“One woman spent time in jail and was sent to the state hospital,” he related. “They said she cannot aid and assist in her defense and released her. I was told never to bring her back (to the local jail) because she cannot aid and assist in her defense.

“If she gets out of jail and plunges a knife into the back of some citizen, and I can’t take her to jail? The jail is refusing us at the door when we bring them in.”

And it happens almost every day.

He said local law enforcement “bends over backward” in its attempts not to deluge the jail with people who stand accused of minor crimes.

“But when you contact them, eight, nine, 10 times a day?” Andrews said. “At a certain point you have to take action. We’re at that stage.”

District Attorney Everett Dial said sometimes even the minor crimes can end up being big deals.

“It’s a huge problem,” he said, citing a man who took off in a wooden fishing boat — and decided to light a campfire on board. “Jail is not a mental institution, but there’s nowhere else for them to go.”

Often, the mentally ill first wind up at Curry General Hospital, where they are put in what some there call a “mental health hold room” that Dukek says should not be defined that way.

“There are many kinds of people who are held there,” he said. “People with dementia, developmental disabilities. But the perception is that everyone in there is a mental health patient, and that is simply not the truth.”

Yet, the room is adjacent to an Intensive Care Unit room — and the needs of patients in these two rooms do not blend well, he said.

A challenge there is that no one is trained to provide security for the mentally ill who are held there, he said. Dukek said his agency is willing to pay for one of the two security guards needed.

“I told the hospital board they can decide not to have a hold room, but people will still come there,” he said. “I think that resonated with them.”

John Spicer, who serves on the public safety council and hospital boards, said he “can’t say for sure” if anyone currently there can provide security.

“We’re trying to get someone trained who can handle this type of person,” he said. “We’re working on it. It’s not something that’s being ignored.”

Curry Community Health, a nonprofit spun off from the county during budget cuts in 2012, takes seriously mentally ill people from this area to Juniper Ridge — a facility in John Day, Oregon, a small community three hours northeast of Bend, Dukek said.

“It’s a heck of a drive to get people up there,” he added. “A mental health facility on the Southern Oregon coast would be best for our county, and Coos County, as well.”

According to CCH CEO Carol Raper, it costs $2,200 to transport someone to John Day and back. If they need to go to court in Curry County, that’s another $2,200. The high-risk patient-inmates cost $1,000 a day to stay there, a figure that dwindles to a “mere” $400 for those who are less dangerous to themselves and staff.

Dukek said CCH has a $64,000 bill due for precisely those services.

“Something has to give,” Smith said. “The rural counties seem to have a larger percentage of the mentally ill, probably because (our economies are) depressed. And we have a transient population; it’s a double-whammy.”

A regional facility

Raper noted that in San Antonio, Texas, legislators agreed to establish a mental health facility that addresses everything from detoxification to long-term health, employment issues and medical care.

And that, she noted, has saved the city’s law enforcement about $50 million.

Mitchell pointed out that the jail in Coos Bay has a wing on it that has never been developed. And the basement area, which used to be used for juvenile services, is now vacant. The two spaces together, he suggested, could be used as a regional mental health facility at far less cost than building a new one. 


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