Sheriff wants to keep mentally ill out of jail

Ryan Summerlin
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario
File |

The inmate’s moods swung between catatonic and violent. Even the sheriff said the man didn’t belong in jail, that he was a victim of the criminal justice system.

He was first taken to Valley View Hospital for his mental health issues, but there he became aggressive and damaged thousands of dollars in property.

At the jail, he would lie in his own waste and smear feces around his cell. Deputies would gear up into hazmat suits and send a cell extraction team to clean up his cell and give him a shower.

“This was a regular event we had to do with this gentleman,” Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said.

When he needed to go to court, he would act out violently, and detentions deputies would have to put him in a restraint chair.

This is an illustration of a typical day in the life of an inmate with mental illness, someone who doesn’t really belong in jail or in prison, but who winds up there because there are so few resources, Vallario said.

In the U.S., up to 60 percent of all people incarcerated in jails and prison suffer some kind of mental illness. And inmates with mental illness spend about four times longer in jail. That’s more time away from the treatment they need, and more tax dollars being spent to keep them in jail.

“We’re finding these people are acting out criminally, and they end up in a place they don’t belong,” said Vallario, who wants to see more resources invested into services for the mentally ill. “Most of the time this is happening because we’re lacking resources ahead of the curve, to get them the help they need.”

The sheriff said there are “constant barriers and pitfalls” when trying to manage an inmate with mental illness.

The jail, of course, is simply not a psychiatric unit. But when inmates such as this, who have severe mental illness, act out criminally and wind up in jail, there is a state law that also holds off any mental health actions until the criminal charges are addressed.

Therefore, law enforcement cannot issue a mental health hold and send them to a psychiatric hospital. On the other hand, that law keeps sheriffs and others outside of the criminal court proceeding from unilaterally initiating a psychiatric evaluation that could affect a defendant’s case.

Jackie Skramstad is regional director for Mind Springs Health, the area’s primary mental health services provider that runs the West Springs Hospital in Grand Junction. It’s the only psychiatric hospital on the Western Slope, with 32 beds and construction underway for a major expansion.

“There is emphasis at the state level on the intercept model,” she explained of efforts to keep people with mental health needs out of jail.

The model outlines different programs and interventions at different stages of engagement within the legal system.

“At the point of initial contact with law enforcement this includes co-responder models for crisis response and some diversion type programs,” Skramstad said. That includes in-jail programs, pretrial and problem-solving courts.

“These are all designed to keep people out of the legal system or keep them from getting deeper into the legal system,” she said.

During criminal proceedings, the attorneys or judge can raise questions about the defendant’s competency. After those questions, the defendant would have to be evaluated to see if he or she is competent for court proceedings. Competency evaluations are common, but they are different from a mental health hold.

The state’s mental health institute in Pueblo often has an extensive waiting list. In the aforementioned Garfield County case, Vallario and the district attorney were able to come to an agreement, drop the charges and send him to the West Springs Hospital in Grand Junction.

Vallario said this was the first time that he’d advocated for dropped charges to get an inmate into psychiatric care. When they finally got this inmate’s charges dropped, he was 54 on the list to go to the state-run Pueblo facility, and would be waiting for months to get in.

Garfield County is not unique in this problem. It’s an issue that jails across the country are dealing with. In Colorado, law enforcement leaders have pushed for legislation for more crisis beds in psychiatric hospitals and crisis intervention in general.

And, officers in the field are getting more training than ever in mental illness issues, which Vallario said will hopefully help defuse situations before they become criminal.

Vallario hopes to see improvement with the expansion of the West Springs Hospital, doubling the number of beds. Construction started this fall, and the project is slated to be finished around January 2019.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.