Detention unit for mentally ill aims for rehab

With room for up to 20 inmates, staff will try to break `arrest and rearrest' cycle

July 14, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Over the past two decades, thousands of beds at psychiatric hospitals have closed across Maryland, part of a trend of reducing care for the mentally ill that has shifted much of the burden onto the criminal justice system.

Anne Arundel County, like most other jurisdictions across the state, has housed accused criminals with mental illness wherever it could, with few resources to keep them from returning again and again to jail.

But that began to change yesterday, as Anne Arundel officials accepted a handful of screened inmates into the county's new mental health unit at the Jennifer Road Detention Center in Parole, the second facility of its kind in Maryland

"We are going to change lives here," County Executive Janet S. Owens, a candidate for state comptroller, said at a ceremony Wednesday inside the detention center. "I've seen so many lives devastated by mental illness."

Inspired by a similar facility in Montgomery County, the unit can house up to 20 inmates at a time, with an upgraded staff providing counseling and medication to ease them smoothly into the jail's general population - and perhaps back into public life.

"We want to interrupt the revolving door of arrest and rearrest," said Richard J. Baker, superintendent for the county Department of Detention Facilities.

Anne Arundel County, which is funding the unit, put the cost of running it at $204,000 a year, which will include additional staffing for a psychiatric nurse and certified social workers. The unit operates in a wing of the detention center that was built in 2000 but has been little used because of insufficient funds to staff it, Baker said. It will provide isolated care for inmates for up to 30 days.

Selected inmates will receive life-skills training and undergo counseling, with their progress monitored by mental health professionals, who will continue to follow those inmates after they re-enter the general population. As part of the treatment, the county will direct them into after-care services to keep them on track.

County officials stress that the unit is not designed to offer long-term care, as one would receive in a mental hospital

About 630 inmates are jailed at the Jennifer Road facility, a number that will remain unchanged, Baker said.

County officials said they have reached an understanding with county judges not to refer inmates to the mental health unit, leaving that decision to the detention center staff.

Law enforcement officials spoke highly of the unit's potential.

"This is a wonderful thing," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. She said the unit will "affect recidivism rates for generations."

Baker posed a rhetorical question: "Are they committing crimes to commit crimes, or is the mental illness leading to that?"

While county officials applauded the new facility, Owens said its creation also represents a "failure" on the part of the federal and state governments to deliver adequate help to the mentally ill.

From 1983 to 2004, the capacity of the state mental health hospital system, which includes large hospitals and smaller treatment centers, dwindled from 4,390 beds to 1,204.

In 2004, Maryland officials closed the Crownsville Hospital Center, the third-largest state-run psychiatric hospital, leaving the state with two primary residential facilities for the mentally ill.

The result of the push toward de-institutionalization has been a spike in the numbers of mentally ill people who are arrested and jailed. Except for the most serious cases, mental health experts and public safety officials note, the mentally ill are left for local police and detention centers.

With the treatment of the mentally ill increasingly left in the hands of local governments, Owens said the county had to step forward.

"If we can alter that revolving door and cycle, we can help these people get a leg up," she said.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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