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More mental health issues in jails spurs regional training

By Clare McCarthy
April 19, 2017 at 11:40 p.m.

 Mary Farley with the Texas Jail Association speaks Wednesday to representatives from area law enforcement agencies during a training session called "The Rights and Wrongs of Mental Health in a Jail" at  Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center in Longview.

Is it a behavioral problem — or is it mental illness?

That's the question a jails expert says always should be asked of inmates as they enter county lockups.

"The numbers are increasing of people with mental illness coming into our facilities," Mary Farley with the Texas Jail Association told jail officials Wednesday. "We have a duty and responsibility to identify people who could be at risk and to confidently put them in the right classification and supervise them properly."

Sheriff's office officials and jailers from Gregg and surrounding counties gathered Tuesday and Wednesday at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center for a regional training class called "The Rights and Wrongs of Mental Health in a Jail."

Farley instructed attendees about the importance of identifying and finding solutions for inmates with mental health issues.

"If it's mental illness, we want to document that so we can say this person is deteriorating, becoming aggressive," she told the class. "All of that plays a role in moving them along in the system."

The Texas Jail Association is a nonprofit organization that provides regional training across the state.

Farley said this is the first time the association has offered a class on mental health in a jail setting, and she has taught the class at eight locations across the state since August.

The Gregg County Sheriff's Office offered to host one of the classes this year, encouraging its officers and officers from surrounding counties to participate in the course.

"Right now, one of the big issues across the nation is mental health, especially how it directly affects the jails in Texas," said Lt. Bill Jennings with the Gregg sheriff's office. "This is a class about how to best address people with mental health (issues) and get them through the justice system based on their condition."

Jennings said it was the first time the sheriff's office has hosted an association course on mental health, but the county has hosted other regional courses in past years.

"(The class was about) how to accept (people) into jail, how to process them in jail, questions to ask, how to respond during a psychotic episode versus someone who is just irate and just acting up," Jennings said.

He said 50 people — sheriffs, floor officers and jailers from Gregg, Smith, Harrison, Panola, Upshur, Franklin and Montgomery counties — attended the course.

Jennings said while there is no specific incident that led to the class, other incidents in Texas jails and in facilities across the country involving inmates with mental health issues show this is a problem that should be addressed.

"I know that (the) Legislature right now down in Austin is talking about this particular topic, so we're just trying to get a jump on it and get some much-needed training for our staff to deal with these kind of people," he said.

Jennings said the Gregg County Jail is fortunate to have direct assistance from Community Healthcore, a local health care provider that works with the jail to provide evaluations and recommend medications to the doctor on staff.

"We have a full-time doctor that's there as needed and then Community Healthcore is there five days a week," Jennings said. "The jail is not the proper place for somebody with mental health issues. Even if they may have committed a misdemeanor crime, they don't have the mental culpability and they need help.

"So our goal is to get them the help they need, get on the proper medications and be able to function in society without coming to jail."

Jennifer Phillips, a medical officer from the Franklin County Jail, said she tries to get as many jailers as possible to attend educational courses such as the one at Maude Cobb.

"I've been a jailer for 12 years, and I've actually seen it progress where people are getting more aware of these things," Phillips said. "We're having more mentally ill people being brought in — it's just more prevalent."

Phillips said she has seen many jailers ignore or turn away from inmates who exhibit signs of mental illness simply because they're considered "crazy" or "aggressive."

But Phillips and Farley said one of the main ways to prevent suicide and harmful behavior in jails is to reach out to those inmates and talk to them.

"All we're trying to do is make sure they stay alive and safe," Farley said. "We need to be able to show in good faith on our part that we have tried to get whatever information it was to ensure continued care."

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