New jail services aim to stop suicides

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COEUR d'ALENE - A new mental health service at the Kootenai County jail is expected to improve safety at the facility and hopefully reduce recidivism, said Capt. Kim Edmondson on Tuesday.

The aim is largely to crack down on suicide attempts, she said.

"There's a lot of suicidal inmates who don't have contact with the right mental health folks in the community," said Edmondson, who also said the jail saw a serious suicide attempt as recently as Monday night.

The commissioners voted 2-1 on Tuesday to approve a renewed contract with Correctional Health Care, the jail's medical provider, that includes providing a new mental health professional to work 25 hours a week on-site at the jail.

The mental health professional, who will also be on call 24/7, will provide individual therapy, one-on-one supportive contact, suicide evaluations, referrals, crisis management and suicide intervention for inmates, Edmondson said.

This is the first time the jail will offer these kinds of services, she said, adding that the contract goes into effect on Oct. 1.

"It's just a goal, to have a certain level of medical and mental health services within the jail," she said. "All the different programs we offer to help correct behavior and teach inmates coping skills they need to be better citizens in our community, this is one more piece of that."

Common mental issues among inmates include depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety issues, she said. Some have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or personality disorders.

About 30 percent of inmates are on psychotropic medication, she said. Many are involved with mental health court, she added, the jail consulting with outside providers if inmates have them.

Inmates with such issues struggle with coping in difficult circumstances, "and of course being in jail is that," Edmondson said.

The jail sees about four serious suicide attempts a year, she said, where inmates require medical care beyond what the jail can provide.

"A person who is committed to doing harm to themselves can find a way to do it, whether with a plastic toothbrush or wooden pencil, a towel or the uniform they're wearing," she said.

Detention staff is trained to recognize indications of suicide, she added, but that only goes so far.

"We're not mental health professionals," she said. "To have that person give us a clear picture of what inmates are dealing with as far as stress levels, I think it will be really helpful."

The mental health provider will also connect offenders with outside providers when they leave, Edmondson said.

"The idea is to hopefully help a lot of the folks we have in our population, to minimize recidivism," she said.

A suicide attempt hasn't been successful at the jail in "many years," Edmondson noted.

The mental health professional in the contract will cost $68,160. The position will replace the work of ACES Community Providers, which has offered regular suicide evaluations at the jail for $11,570 a year.

The total cost of the renewed contract is just over $1 million.

Commissioner Jai Nelson voted against the contract, out of disapproval of the cost disparity between ACES and the new mental health professional.

"We went from $12,000 with ACES to almost $70,000?" Nelson said. "This is a pretty significant increase."

Edmondson pointed out that ACES only provided on-call evaluations, not on-site services. The sheriff's department has researched the need for addressing mental health issues, she said.

"This is an increase of service for the inmates with mental health issues in the facility," Edmondson said. "This is something we need to protect inmates, and staff as well."

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