The Durham County Sheriff's Office announced Oct. 3 that the Durham County Detention Facility will be improving its mental health services thanks to a combination of county money and a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The money, totaling $55,205 from the county and more than $228,000 from the DOJ, will be used to set up the Jail and Mental Health Collaboration Project.
The county's Criminal Justice Resource Center and the sheriff's department will cooperate on the project to improve the identification, screening and tracking process for mental illnesses among detainees, said Gudrun Parmer, the director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center.
Parmer said the UNC School of Social Work will contribute research on screening practices. Tonya VanDeinse, a clinical assistant professor in the school, will serve on the project's executive steering committee.
“I think initiatives such as the Jail and Mental Health Collaboration Project play a vital role in addressing the needs of individuals, particularly those with mental illness who often get stuck in a cycle of recidivism," VanDeinse said in an email.
Parmer said 20 to 25 percent of the average daily population in the jail is made up of people with serious mental health concerns.
Under the current system, she said new inmates are subject to minimal screening that is largely carried out by the jail's medical staff rather than mental health experts. She said the screening involves using an outdated form provided by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s seven answers, yes and no questions, so it’s all self-reporting on behalf of the detainee,” Parmer said.
Elizabeth Forbes, executive director of the prisoner advocacy group NC-CURE, said a lack of properly trained staff can have serious consequences.
“If you miss screening an individual that’s coming into the criminal justice system and you miss the fact that they have a serious mental health impairment, then you’ve done a great injustice, not just to that person with the mental health disorder, but to the staff that work at these facilities,” she said.
Forbes said that reforms like this are necessary because jails and prisons have been forced to serve as de facto mental health institutions.
“It is an absolute travesty of justice that this country has allowed that to happen, because we’ve placed a burden on our jails and our prison system that they are not prepared or funded to meet,” she said.
Tamara Gibbs, a spokesperson for the sheriff's department, said the program could raise public awareness for mental health issues.
“By openly discussing this issue and by making it a priority, we hope people will take an interest in the mental health of all citizens and the need for mental health services both inside our facility, as well as when a detainee leaves our facility,” Gibbs said.
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