Grant will aid inmates who are mentally ill

Durham program will divert people to treatment programs

Staff WriterNovember 28, 2008 

— Durham mental health professionals think nonviolent inmates who are mentally ill need treatment more than a stay in jail or prison. Thanks to a federal grant, they'll be able to help such inmates quicker.

The two-year, $200,000 grant will enable The Durham Center and a statewide outpatient agency to create a team to help those individuals instead of keeping them in jail.

Team members, who will begin work early next year, will help identify and assist inmates with mental disorders. About 35 inmates a year will be helped through the program.

Such programs aren't new in North Carolina. Twelve sites across the state began trying them in 2003 and have since diverted more than 300 people into mental health treatment programs. A state report found that those in the programs had declining rates of substance abuse, but some ended up back in jail.

Nationally, about 64 percent of local jail inmates have a mental health condition, according to a 2006 federal report. Of that group, 44 percent had a current or past violent offense, and 76 percent had substance abuse issues.

The Durham Center and a Kinston-based outpatient agency, Alternative Care Treatment Systems, will work with inmates to create plans that will keep them out of jail while receiving the help they need. This team would consist of a mental health professional, a person knowledgeable of the criminal justice system and a person with mental illness who has received help.

Ann Oshel, coordinator of Durham County's Adult Systems of Care program, said inmates with mental illness are challenging to deal with because their lives are often unstable. They have difficulty finding jobs and keeping homes, she said. Some may have dual disorders.

Oshel said she had one patient with paranoid schizophrenia whose last name matched that of a realty company. He would move into homes that had the realty company's sign because he thought he lived there. He hasn't been in trouble since receiving help.

Though he committed a crime, such a person doesn't belong in jail, said Capt. Elijah Bazemore, who oversees programs and administration at the Durham County jail.

"A lot of times, these people relapse and as a result of their relapse may commit a crime and not have those social supports outside the facility that will enable them to get reconnected," Bazemore said. "This way, the diversion program will be able to reconnect that person back to their resources."

At the Durham jail, a nurse conducts a mental health screening of each inmate. Those who are flagged are examined by a mental health social worker, who would then contact the diversion team.

Oshel thinks the grant will help Durham officials develop expertise in dealing with inmates who are unstable because of mental illness.

"What has happened before is that there was a whole lot of people with mental illness going to jail and getting stuck there longer than the general population," Oshel said. "Planning for treatment and basic needs can get complicated."

The grant is the second one the center has received to work in the the areas of criminal justice and mental health in Durham. The first, received in 2006, supported an initiative to identify how criminal justice and mental health officials could better work with each other.

Similar discussions led to the creation of the Durham Police Department's Crisis Intervention Training program, which trains officers in how to deal with those with mental disorders.

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2025

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