A federal grant will improve Durham County’s ability to identify, track and treat hundreds of jail inmates with mental health issues, officials said Monday.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently awarded a three-year, $228,000 grant to the jail. Durham County will provide $55,205 in matching funds.
The money will help county officials identify more people with mental illness, determine how to help them while incarcerated and connect them with services when they leave.
“Mental health illnesses are a daily reality for the men and women who come into this facility, and the men and women who are assigned to watch over them while they are in our care and custody,” Sheriff Mike Andrews said.
“Limited funding has created gaps in the health care system,” he added. “And those gaps have put county jails like ours on the front line of mental health care.”
In the first year, the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Criminal Justice Resource Center, the main mental health provider at the jail, will work with the UNC School of Social Work to evaluate potential screening and data-collection tools for inmates entering the jail. The findings will help expand the mental health screening process, currently a short questionnaire with yes and no answers.
In the second and third years, officials will hire a counselor and use the identified tools to screen and track people and ultimately connect them with services.
The grant allows county officials to create processes that can continue after the funding runs out, said Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center. The money will also allow more detention officers to receive crisis intervention and other training. About half have received the crisis intervention training.
About 20 percent of those incarcerated in the jail were referred to the mental health services team.
In 2015, jail officials processed 7,369 people entering the jail. The number includes repeat bookings. Currently, the jail houses 516 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial.
County officials made Monday’s grant announcement in a 24-cell housing unit set aside for the most fragile, vulnerable male inmates with severe, persistent mental health issues.
The Sheriff’s Office had said it needed additional staff to open the unit. In June, the county commissioners approved 10 of the 14 detention officer positions requested by the Sheriff’s Office to man the mental health pod and other areas. The budget also included money to expand other mental health and pre-trial services.
The new positions have a start date of Jan. 1, and the mental health pod is set to open in early 2017.
Detention officers overseeing the mental health pod will complete specialized training, and other services and equipment will be centralized.
“Think of this almost like a mental health clinic inside of a secure facility,” Parmer said.
Over the past two years, protesters have objected to jail conditions, calling for a community investigation. One of 33 recommendations of a recent federal assessment of the jail centered on housing detainees with mental health issues in one pod.