MENTAL HEALTH: Sheriffs Want To Change System

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

“There’s no greater duty in public service than to helps those who perhaps cannot help themselves.” Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald told lawmakers in the Senate Tuesday.

Law enforcement officials were on hand to offer their expert advice on how to help the state’s mentally ill at a hearing with the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee members wanted to know how public safety officials handle mental health within the criminal justice system.

Sheriff’s from across the state agreed county jails are increasingly being used for mental health patients.  Often criminals are in need of immediate psychiatric care, but most jails don’t have the resources to offer that care.

“Our treatment is 23 hour segregation. If they’re violent or at risk of injuring others they’re segregated. I’m not mentally ill and as I look around the room I don’t think any of you are mentally, but I know if I was locked in a 9 X 11 room, I probably would be. And that’s the only option we have as a county jail,” Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said.

Senator Rob Hogg says he realizes the state needs to look at better ways to consistently and adequately offer mental health services. 

In 2004, Black Hawk County jail began assessing inmate’s health at their initial appearance. The success of the program is now being emulated in other counties.

Both lawmakers and law enforcement agreed using jails as our primary mental health systems is expensive and dangerous.

Thompson explained, “Jails are not an acute mental health treatment facility.  That’s not what we do. Even though we operate with 24 hour medical care and can boast that we do have a full time mental health nurse.  That’s all she does.  Black Hawk is doing it right, but we still don’t have the solution for folks who don’t meet particular criteria.”