Mentally ill overload county jail

Sitting in an off-white room, the color of calm, sipping on a plastic cup full of a red liquid — a derivative of KoolAid perhaps — three Island County Commissioners commiserated Feb. 28 on how the state’s jail system needs help.

Tearing through a piece of chicken with a harmless spork — a utensil designed not to penetrate the skin of a chicken, let alone that of an inmate — Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley presented the facts: His customer base is growing and he has nowhere to put it.

“We have a small-size jail for our population,” he said.

But that does come with one caveat, Hawley said. Island County’s population is aging, which means that fewer young people are around to commit crimes. The county’s population is “less crime committing than other populations,” he said.

“As you get older, the less likely you are to commit crimes.”

The commissioners were in jail Feb. 28 to see first-hand how the county’s detention facility is run. Hawley played tour guide, but never ventured into the prisoners holding areas. The occasional inmate who passed shot a nervous glance, the inherent distrust for a person in a suit obvious on their faces.

In 2004, 2,167 people passed through the sally door into the jail. Of those, 496 were female, by far the largest number ever, Hawley said.

“Most of the people coming through our facility are there for some sort of an alcohol or drug related incident,” Hawley said.

A typical inmate at Island County Jail is a white male, between the ages of 18 and 23, and in for some sort of drug charge. Crime also runs in the family, Hawley said. He said he looks through records of jail bookings dating back to the early 1900s and recognizes some of the same last names that are currently in jail.

“We have our regulars that come back and forth,” Hawley said. “Most people come to jail once and that’s enough.”

Hawley said that his mission during the annual update to the commissions was to inform the county’s leader how the jail works. But he also had another message for the commissioners — the jail cannot handle the mentally ill inmates it must house.

“We’re turning into a home for the mentally ill,” Hawley said. “As the state closes facilities, it’s a chain reaction and we are the last domino that topples.”

Inmates must wait at the jail for a bed to become open at one of the state-run mental health facilities. The problem with this, Hawley said, is that Island County Jail does not have the staffing to provide any sort of treatment for them. The county’s contracted mental health service provider, Compass Health, does provide some services to those who most need it.

Commissioner Mike Shelton said that the state’s mental health system decline is affecting the quality of life at the jail.

“Jails are not the place to deliver mental health services,” Shelton said. “Because of cuts, we’re going to see more and more mentally ill folks in jail and I’m here to tell you that’s not the place for them.”

Hawley said that some inmates require such close supervision, that a physical check must be made at 15-minute intervals.

The commissioners got to leave the jail, which might help explain why Shelton no longer gets claustrophobic when he enters the tight areas meant for security.

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