Part one: Behind Bars, Mental Health in Humboldt County

Mental health has become a big concern throughout Humboldt County, especially within the correctional facility.

Many of those individuals regularly cycling in and out of the correctional facility are suffering from some sort of mental illness and unfortunately without the correct support outside of the jail this issue is only continuing to grow.

Humboldt County has a large population of homeless and substance abuse addicts, many of them people with some sort of mental illness, and who are well known to the local law enforcement.

“Right now the county jail is probably the largest mental health facility in the community,” says Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant, Duane Christian.

“There’s a higher level of people in the criminal justice system that have a mental illness or other disorders than there are in the community at large,” says County of Humboldt Probation Department Division Director, Shaun Brenneman.

“So we have folks who have mental health issues and have a lot of contact with law enforcement, if they’re not provided the right kind of mental health support they end up in jail, they end up in prison,” says Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services Senior Program Manager, Mark Lamers.

Eureka police officers say on an average about 20-30% of the contacts they make every day are with people suffering from some degree of a mental illness.

EPD’s mist officer Cory Crnich works closely with this population and sees firsthand how a mental illness can prevent them from receiving the assistance they need.

“It can affect their ability to make decisions and utilize the resources that are available to them but because of their mental illness they might not be able to or willing to access. It’s really difficult to force somebody to be engaged and involved in mental health services,” says Crnich.

The mist program was established after recognizing a small portion of offenders with mental illnesses where committing a large portion of the crimes and straining the available resources.

“If we can give them intensive case management then we can try to stabilize those people and although we’re stabilizing a small percentage of folks we’re able to reduce a large percentage of calls and resources that are taken up by them,” says Crnich.

So while there are many crimes being committed by those unable to manage their mental illness the correctional facility regularly sees repeat offenders who can’t seem to get out of the cycle.

“So you get people who are what they call frequent flyers of the jail system, and you know they’re probably not the most highest risk in the community but they’re people who are not able to get a hold of their mental illness and they keep committing criminal behaviors usually fairly low level ones. And they just cycle in and out of the jail,” says Breeneman.

Once in the correctional facility those with mental illness often have trouble interacting with other inmates. In which case they are moved from the regular dorm setting into a single cell, away from the general jail population, this helps ensure the safety of the other inmates but limits the social interaction of those segregated.

“So you’re forced because you have no other option to put them in an isolation setting and i think that can further damage their mental illness and their mental condition,” says Humboldt County Sheriff’s Officer administrative Sergeant, Dennis Griffin.

Those who are unwilling to participate undergo a psych evaluation,  if deemed incompetent to stand trial they are then sent to a state hospital for restoration to competency and this population  is only continuing grow.

“In the old days we would have four or six, maybe eight people waiting to go to the state hospital and it would take a couple months, two  or three months for those people to find a bed. No we have as many as 12, 14, 15 people and the wait can be as long as five to six months,” says Lamers.

Transferring from the correctional facility to a state hospital isn’t a treatment program for those struggling with mental illness but process where inmates are trained to participate in their trial and involuntary medicated.

After serving their time and being released back onto the streets these individuals will still continue to face the same obstacles and hardships that resulted in their arrest in the first place

“I think everyone identifies both in the correctional facility and in the community that this is a problem that needs as many resources as is available,” says Griffin.

“Those of us who work in law enforcement and in corrections who see mentally ill folks in our jails continuing to bounce in and out of jail know that that’s not a particularly good solution. We need to find a better way; this is not a good system for dealing with that kind of an issue,” says Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer, Bill Damiano.