Jail earns distinction for efforts with mentally ill

Island County was recognized for its data-driven efforts to help people with mental health issues.

The Stepping Up Initiative recently named Island County as one of 23 “Innovator Counties” in the nation for its data-driven efforts to assess and assist people with mental health illnesses in the jail, according to the initiative.

County officials say the jail system has been transformed in the five years since the death of Keaton Farris, a 25-year-old man who was suffering from mental illness and died from dehydration alone in his cell.

Following the tragedy, the former sheriff hired Jose Briones, who has extensive experience in the state prison system, as the new jail chief and handed him a mandate to reform the system. In addition, county officials created a community panel and the county commissioners began making a series of significant investments in staffing and training.

That same year, Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson attended a National Association of Counties conference and learned about the Stepping Up Initiative.

Stepping Up is a national initiative with a simple goal: reducing the number of people with mental illness in jails.

The “criminalization” of mental illness is seen as a national epidemic as resources for treating mental illness are scarce in many areas and jails become the default facilities for housing people in crisis, even though jails are often not equipped to deal with the challenges.

“Stepping Up provides a template for aligning criminal justice and mental health services to better identify and serve this vulnerable population,” Price Johnson said.

Briones said being named as an Innovator County was a surprise.

Briones said organizers contacted the jail to ask questions about how things are done and afterward the county was awarded the distinction.

As Briones explained, Stepping Up is concerned with evidence-based classification systems for people suffering from mental illness in the jail.

It’s something the county jail has been doing for a while.

Briones said the jail developed a screening system for people being booked into the jail.

The classification tool gauges mental illness and risk; people thought to be suffering from a mental illness are set up for referral with mental health care providers on an urgent or not-so-urgent basis.

The process captures all kinds of information about the inmates, from name and age to type of mental illness and suicide risk, Briones explained.

The booking process now takes about 90 minutes instead of an hour, but he said it’s been well worth it.

In the last five years, the jail has also expanded its mental health and medical services in the jail.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, telemedicine has been a vital tool, he said.

Briones and Price Johnson also stressed the important role that the county’s Human Services department has played in the jail with vital programs that help people transition into the community or recover from drug addiction.

“It’s been a heavy lift for everyone involved,” he said.

Mental illness and substance abuse are often co-occurring problems, Briones said.

A managed healthcare organization awarded the county a grant to hire a full-time person to manage a chemical dependency program in the jail next year.

The ultimate goal of these programs, Briones and Price Johnson said, is to break the cycle of incarceration.

“We’re not about warehousing people just to have them turn around and come back,” Briones said.

Being an Innovator County will mean more work for county officials.

Briones said he will essentially be a mentor for officials at other jails and will be available to answer questions from facilities across the nation.