The Mesa County Detention Center isn’t just a prison anymore.
It’s also a key component of Mesa County’s efforts to deal with mental health and behavioral issues. Many things happen in and around the county that are designed not only to keep its population to a minimum, but also to help prevent inmates from being abused.
“Over the past two years, we’ve realized that nearly 50% of our colleagues are taking antipsychotics,” Mesa County Sheriff Todd Roel said in an interview. “I want to see people treated with the right level of care for them, and for the majority of these prisoners, our prison is not the right level of care.”
One of the main tools the detention center has is the prison-based behavioral services, which provide a series of programs to assist inmates with substance abuse, efficiency enhancement and medical assistance.
Some of this may sound like something you would expect a mental health or behavioral health provider, such as Mind Springs, to give you, but prisons have embraced it for two main reasons: to ensure a safe detention facility for inmates and staff, and to help inmates correct their behaviors. The ability to become productive members of society.
“We have this powerful system in place to keep them stable, but one of the things we’ve realized is that when they come out of our doors, there’s no one to catch them,” Roel said. “They’re outside calling the last person they knew, and they end up with the same people who caused their problems in the first place.”
One way to address this problem is a relatively new transition program initiated by the prison, one designed to help soon-to-be-release inmates get the things they may need to succeed so that prison does not become a revolving door for them.
Until recently, the prison only hired one person to do these tasks, but recently added another person.
“They handle everything from getting them back into Medicaid, getting their driver’s license, getting any paperwork they need to get a Social Security card, things they need to get a job,” Roel said. They also associate it with treatment from the outside. Often, this treatment is not immediate. Oftentimes, it takes two weeks or a month, and a person with a serious mental problem or substance abuse problem will not last for two weeks.”
To respond to this issue, the Sheriff’s Office along with the Mesa County Department of Human Services and the Board of County Commissioners announced a new program last week to deal with those so-called superusers.
Roel said it is helpful, if not critical, for the county as a whole to address mental health and behavioral issues beyond the needs of the prison.
The county plans to create the Community-Based Intensive Case Management Program, a program designed to reduce reliance on law enforcement and hospital emergency rooms for non-threatening mental health emergencies.
Commissioner Janet Rowland said the program, which is up and running by August or September, will start where the prison ends.
Roland has been at the forefront of finding ways to enhance how the county deals with mental health and behavioral issues, something that involves more than just dealing with inmates.
“I remember going on rides for years, and I was shocked by the amount of social work law enforcement officers have to do,” Roland said. “This is where I really hope the case management piece will help with that, which is why we started with that first.”
Like Roel, Rowland said part of the problem is the lack of support for people with mental health and behavioral issues.
That program got a big boost last week when St. Mary’s Medical Center and its new owners, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare, announced a $300,000 grant to help launch this case management component.
No family was spared. “Nobody,” said Dr. Mark Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain, which recently bought St. Mary’s and others in SCL Health Group of Hospitals.
“Everyone feels the pain of behavioral health issues, and it has never been more severe than it is now at the end of the worst part of this pandemic,” he added. “Tackling behavioral health and doing it right is a team sport. No single agency or region can fix this. The only way to tackle things is to play to each of our strengths.”
This money, along with money from the sheriff’s office and government grants, will generate approximately $1 million to get it up and running.
The new program will be designed to hold people’s hands in meeting their needs. Doing so not only helps prevent future problems but also saves taxpayers money in having to provide post-fact services, such as court trials and imprisonment.
“Often they come off their medication, at which point they start to break down,” Roland said.
“They start hallucinating or they get aggressive and attack someone. Now a crime is being committed and they need to be caught.” I think we’ll see a drop in that. I’m optimistic by this time next year, we’ll be able to see some real progress.”
Earlier this year, the county announced a somewhat similar program designed to help anyone who needs help with a variety of things.
Dubbed the Mental Health Navigation Hub, Rowland said the program is made up of seven people whose only job is to “hold people’s hands” through the process of connecting them to treatment or other services they need.
A separate group of workers is also due to be located in the Economic Mobility Center soon, which aims to direct those in need to any financial assistance they qualify for, such as food stamps or housing assistance.
It all stems from the newly formed Mesa County Mental Health Cooperative, a group that Roland and others started last year with the goal of identifying problem areas and implementing a more comprehensive solution to address mental health needs.
Another way to deal with such incidents that is implemented at the state level, if not at the national level, is to replace the law enforcement response in certain circumstances on such matters and to replace or increase it with mental health professionals.
Due to internal issues at Mind Springs, the two-person county crisis response team set up to assist law enforcement is no longer working.
Roland and Rowell hope to get that back by fall, and with a bigger and better mission.
“It’s definitely a gap, but we think we’ve found a way to bridge it,” she said. “For both the Grand Junction Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, we are looking at some potential funding through Rocky (Mountain Health Plans) that would help us put together a team of five therapists that will be part of that co-responder unit.”
“We used to have two processors that were provided by Mind Springs, but when Mind Springs started losing staff, that was one of the programs that got cut,” she added. “The city is also appointing two therapists to be the Joint Response Team. Between those seven, we think we can cover it all.”
Another thing prison is doing, which was enshrined in a new law passed last year, is to find more ways to alleviate the mental health problems of anyone serving a prison sentence, including those who have not yet been sentenced.
This new law requires prisons the size of Mesa County or larger to closely monitor the mental health of inmates, including giving them more recuperation time.
To do this, the prison is modifying one of its barriers and outer courtyards—at a cost of about $800,000—to accommodate everyone, including creating more private outdoor areas for those who are too dangerous to associate with other inmates.
Looking for workers
One of the hardest parts of getting all of this done is finding the right people to do the jobs, which is not inherently easy.
This is also something the county and prison are hoping to address.
“This is always a concern, and every project we designed in the (collaborative) evaluation would solve our problem, every one of them is waiting for the staff to be there,” Roland said.
“Part of what the group is working on is the workforce,” she added. “We are looking at some options through the state for loan forgiveness programs for people who work as therapists. We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to increase the number of employees.”
State legislators are also trying to address the issue of finding, training, and retaining health care professionals.
During this year’s session that ended earlier this month, the Colorado legislature approved and signed by Governor Jared Polis several measures intended to address mental health and behavioral issues.
One measure, SB226, sponsored in part by Senator Bob Rankin, R. Carbondale, and signed by Polis just last week, created a new $61 million education grant program to help recruit and retain health care workers, including obtaining tuition assistance to help them obtain Get the degrees and certifications they need to get jobs.
Although HB1350, co-sponsored by Representatives Janice Rich, R. Grand Junction, and Julie McCluskey, D. Dillon, similarly aims to improve the state’s workforce in general, particularly in rural areas of the state, it identifies health care jobs as an essential part of who is – she.