Cecil's team approach viewed as state model

June 12, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Like most state jails, the Cecil County Detention Center has seen a rapid increase in the number of mentally ill inmates.

But unlike many jails, mental health and jail administrators are working together on the problem. Eldon C. Watts, director of the state's fledgling Jail Mental Health Program, said Cecil County has developed a model for the state.

What the county has that others lack is a multifaceted program dealing with mentally ill offenders before they're jailed, during incarceration and after they're released.

It also has Donna Hall.

"Before Donna started, we were really struggling with this population," said Jeffrey Clewer, director of the detention center. "We were so limited in our options."

Using money from the mental health project, jail officials hired Ms. Hall as a full-time counselor, coordinator and manager, along with two other therapists and an assistant.

"Sometimes I have to wear sneakers because my feet never hit the ground," said Ms. Hall. "I have a beeper and I'm pretty much on call 24 hours a day. Police and judges know to call me when they have someone they think is mentally ill."

Jimmy Charles, 25, a homeless man, has been in and out of jail since he turned 18. This time, he was serving an 18-month sentence for breaking into a home and stealing four beers.

"I've been in and out of here a lot. Disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, drunken in public -- stupid stuff," he said.

Mr. Charles, a schizophrenic who also suffers from depression and alcoholism, says he often hears voices. To drown them out, he drinks. He is prone to self-mutilation.

Although he was evaluated as having mental illness at age 13, he received little treatment during previous incarcerations, he said. This time things are different.

Sitting in the jail's library wearing a prison uniform and slippers, he said he finally is improving. Under his current treatment plan, he believes he may be able to stay out of trouble when he is released, probably in August.

"I'd like to go somewhere where I can get some help," he said. "I don't want to come back here no more."

Keeping people like Mr. Charles from coming back, or better yet from being jailed in the first place, is what the project is all about, Ms. Hall said.

Last fall, the county started a diversion program, evaluating people who appear to have mental illnesses as soon as they are arrested.

In the first eight months, 132 people were "diverted" into treatment rather than jail. So far, none has been rearrested, she said.

Mr. Clewer said the approach is not only more humane, it also eases crowding at the jail.

"In this day and age, you don't want a lot of people in here without them needing to be," he said, adding that mentally ill offenders who commit violent crimes or are considered dangerous are not diverted.

Part of Cecil County's success is undoubtedly due to its size. The jail is small and the inmates relatively few, so the state grant goes farther.

Jail and health officials in some larger counties doubt Cecil's success could be duplicated elsewhere. But Cecil's mental health advocates disagree.

Yes, the smaller size has helped, they said, but the program's success is also a result of teamwork and a desire to be innovators.

When the county's health department launched the program, Mr. Clewer added $25,000 from the jail budget, something most other jail administrators have been loathe to do. The health department's Core Service Agency/Division of Mental Health, which administers the project, also has been closely involved.

Mr. Watts said agencies have to share resources and expertise to tackle this issue. "This is not a mental health problem. It's not a jail problem. It's a societal problem," he said. "The problem in the past was that no one wanted to take responsibility. To solve it, it's got to be a collaborative effort."

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