AP: Kansas jails struggle to meet needs of mentally ill


WICHITA (AP) — Scarce mental health resources in Kansas are boosting county jail populations with inmates who might be better served in a psychiatric ward than behind bars.

WICHITA (AP) — Scarce mental health resources in Kansas are boosting county jail populations with inmates who might be better served in a psychiatric ward than behind bars.

Some counties such as Johnson and Shawnee have created pods at their jails where prisoners suffering from mental illnesses are segregated from the general population.

But in Sedgwick County, the state's second most-populous county, Sheriff Robert Hinshaw has tried and failed for three years to get such a pod built at the county jail.

The Wichita Eagle reported that Hinshaw, who lost his re-election bid in August, said 49 inmates out of the jail's average population of 1,463 would be housed in a mental health pod, if the jail had one, and there are about 225 others who are taking some form of medication for mental disorders.

Of those 49 inmates, 43 are in custody on felony charges, including seven who are charged with murder or attempted murder.

"It's frustrating," Hinshaw said. "I think it's something that we do need in the Sedgwick County Jail. Right or wrong, regardless of how you feel about it, we see more people with mental illnesses being incarcerated, and we need to have the tools to provide the proper level of care."

Jails have become mental health institutions to some degree because the state's mental hospitals have waiting lists, and most counties, including Sedgwick, don't have long-term facilities for people with mental illnesses.

The average length of stay for an inmate is 28 days, but for the 49 inmates Hinshaw would house in a special pod, the average is 165 days. Sedgwick County spends nearly $68 per day to house one person in the jail.

With an average daily population of 650 to 700 inmates, Johnson County estimates about 17 percent of its inmates are mentally ill.

Johnson County's jail has two special units for people with mental illnesses, one for men and one for women. The sheriff's office also has started a "forensic assertive community team" that tries to help people reintegrate back into society after leaving jail.

Tom Erickson, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said the county's special pods helps reduce the time mentally ill inmates spend behind bars because of the attention they receive while there.

"In the end, the more effectively we work with our mental health population while they're in custody and keep them on their medications, the less likely they are to come back. Although we invest some money up front, in the long run it's much more cost-effective," Erickson said.

He said an inmate struggling with mental illness might get back on medications in jail, but not have the resources to stay on them after being released. He said the county works with inmates to get them help the help they need to stay out of jail in the future.

Shawnee County, whose jail is operated by the county Department of Corrections, has three pods for people diagnosed with mental problems.

Richard Kline, director of the department, said one pod is for inmates on suicide watch, one is for inmates "you can't put in a general population" because of mental illness, and the third is available for inmates who may have a combination of mental and medical problems.

"It's a constant balancing act," Kline said. "We're the largest inpatient mental health facility in Shawnee County. We just are."

Shawnee County has been using special pods since 2002, Kline said. It has an average inmate population of about 475, and about 20 percent have serious and persistent mental illnesses.

"The economy is tough all over, so community resource dollars are tightening up," Kline said. "Access to the state hospitals is becoming more and more difficult. So even if someone wants to voluntarily commit themselves to Osawatomie or Larned, they've got a waiting line. If they don't have adequate support systems, well then, something happens and they end up in jail. The lack of state mental health facilities is a ripple effect. It ripples back to the community and then within the community, they end up in the jail."

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