Spartanburg, SC, Jail Welcomes County’s Help on Mental Health Issues

July 22, 2016

By Daniel J. Gross

It’s a problem jails across the country know well: Too many people with mental illnesses are ending up behind bars.

In Spartanburg County, about a quarter of the jail’s inmates have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

In an effort to find solutions to the problem, the Spartanburg County Council this week passed a resolution supporting the Stepping Up Initiative. The national program charges local governments to bring together county leaders, jail officials and mental health professionals to develop a plan for reducing the number of inmates with mental illness. But what happens now?

Under the initiative, Spartanburg County is expected to develop a team of leaders that includes a point person to capture data and measure outcomes. One of the early steps is to make sure leaders at the jail, courthouse, police departments and county council have the same mental health definitions and have the most accurate population totals for those with mental health issues.

Programs already underway to handle mental illness in jail would be tracked collectively and streamlined so everyone involved stays up to date on progress.

By “stepping up,” local leaders are making a countywide commitment said Richard Cho, director of behavioral health for the Council of State Governments Justice Center. They’re agreeing to make timely assessments; to obtain data that can be tracked monthly; and to communicate with the right community agencies to learn how released inmates can be connected to treatment, he said.

“This focuses on the full outcome measures. Once they do inventory, they see where can they make improvements in policy and funding,” Cho said.

In a sense, the initiative formalizes a lot of what’s already being done inside the jail, said Maj. Neal Urch, the jail’s director.

“We’ve done some things and we’re going to do some things that have a more data-driven side to it,” Urch said. “We’re probably good on a few of those things, but we’re trying to fine-tune and home in on some of those things.”

Urch said while some programs in the jail align closely with the initiative, others need to be changed to fit the actions called for.

He said the jail will continue improving its assessments of inmates during intake to better identify those with mental illnesses. Jail staff and partners also plan to improve the inmate release process so those with mental illnesses can be quickly connected to medications and psychiatrists when they leave.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is to reduce the mentally ill population in jail, so reducing recidivism rates is part of the equation, Urch said.

“By making sure (former inmates) are signed up with a mental health facility and getting their medications, hopefully that would prevent them from coming back in jail,” Urch said.

Spartanburg County is one of nearly 300 counties nationwide that have passed Stepping Up resolutions since the program started last year. Spartanburg County Councilman Michael Brown brought the resolution to Council after learning about it during a Herald-Journal town hall on mental health issues in jail.

The Stepping Up Initiative does not track or tally the county’s progress but rather offers guidelines for actions counties should take to move forward. Staff members are available for troubleshooting and assistance, and the initiative also organizes national summits and online webinars and classes so counties can network and learn from each other.

“Some of the efforts done in the past have kind of been isolated from one another,” Cho said. “There haven’t been leaders saying, ‘What are we getting out of these programs?’ Now county leaders can see if they are not at the scale they need to be.”

Besides participating in the initiative, Urch said the jail is moving forward with other plans.

The jail is close to contracting with a Spartanburg Area Mental Health psychiatrist to come to the detention center two days per month for three hours per day to treat patients. Currently, there is no psychiatrist regularly coming to the jail. Services are provided by counselors, therapists and a contractual medical doctor.

A mental health review team also formed in June to meet monthly and conduct case reviews of inmates to ensure no one with a mental illness has been overlooked. The team is made up of mental health counselors, staff from Westgate Family Therapy, the jail’s medical department and security staff.

Urch said council’s approval of the resolution shows the county is on board with the jail’s efforts.

“I was really pleased (the council) took the stand they did. The council is one of our funders, so that means a lot that they put that on public record and they’re showing support for what we’re doing.”

Sarah Wallace, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Spartanburg, said backing the Stepping Up resolution is a good step toward progress.

“When Spartanburg makes up its mind to do something they want to do, something they’re vested in, they do it. It’s about getting people to make up their minds,” Wallace said. “To start, you have to understand mental illness as a whole since everybody has their perceptions. … Because if they’re not educated about you, you’re not going to take an interest in it.”

Help Us Reduce the Number of
People with Mental Illnesses in Jails