Capital Area Human Services said Friday it has added mental health screening for all inmates at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison as a way to identify the mentally ill who are crowding into the jail without anywhere else to go.
Executive Director Jan Kasofsky said that Capital Area Human Services has been forced to identify short-term solutions because of the city’s lack of mental health treatment options. Some city-parish officials have deemed the city to be in a mental health crisis and have tried to identify a funding source for a stabilization center.
With closures of hospitals and emergency rooms that used to treat mentally ill people in Baton Rouge, the jail is one of the few places left for them.
Kasofsky said that until there’s a long-term solution to the lack of care, she is focusing some efforts on the prison’s mentally ill population.
Thus far, Capital Area Human Services has added blanket mental health screening for every inmate as he or she is processed into the jail. They have also added a social worker and peer support to the jail to help work with those inmates.
“A lot of issues around mental health are people understanding they have a problem,” she said.
She also noted that the conditions of the prison, parts of which were built in the 1960s, are not conducive to inmates with mental illness. Most of the population stays in barracks-like conditions, with large rooms full of bunk beds.
In addition, the prison sends many prisoners out-of-parish each year because of overcrowding, which eats up millions in local taxpayer dollars.
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she is frustrated by the money spent on sending inmates out of the parish when that money could be going toward fixing the jail or building a mental health facility.
“It’s like screaming in an open field,” she said.
Kasofsky said that it’s not enough to just keep an eye on the mentally ill while they’re still in prison. The period after mentally ill inmates serve time in jail can be just as concerning, she said. Many inmates leave jail without transportation or a place to go, without phones to confirm doctors’ appointments and without government-issued identification.
She said they need a safety net of care so that they are not re-arrested and brought back to prison. Reducing recidivism among the mentally ill is one of her biggest goals, she said.
Going forward, Kasofsky said the jail needs more social workers and more peer support for inmates with mental illnesses. She also advocated for a stabilization unit for the mentally ill to fill that void in the city-parish. A stabilization unit would replace the mental health emergency room extension, a function of the Earl K. Long Medical Center, which closed in 2013. At such a unit, patients could be stabilized for up to 72 hours, and a psychiatrist would be on-hand to help them.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has drafted plans for one, but no funding source has been identified yet.
“These are your family members and neighbors,” Kasofsky said. “It can be done in a lot better way.”
The jail has a fair share of other problems aside from mental illness. Sheriff Sid Gautreaux joined Mayor-President Kip Holden and other public leaders about a year ago in calling for a tax plan to build a new jail that would better accommodate the inmates.
It was part of a $335 million public safety tax plan that also included a mental health stabilization center and other infrastructure projects, but the Metro Council voted against allowing the tax to go to voters. Council members said they were not convinced that taxes were the only way to pay for the improvements.
Since then, city-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel has continued to say that building a new jail should be a priority for the parish.
The Parish Prison’s medical workers have also complained that they lack the supplies and staffing to treat both physical and mental health problems.
The city-parish has authorized studies about both issues. One will study the prison itself, and the other will focus on the prison’s medical operations.
The Baton Rouge Police Department has also added crisis intervention training for officers. It teaches de-escalation tactics for when officers are dealing with a potentially mentally ill person.