Officials aim to speed up evaluations in jail with teleconferencing

Mental health professionals will soon be evaluating inmates at Island County Jail via videoconferencing.

The jail is one of four in the state that were picked to participate in a telehealth pilot program to evaluate how well the technology translates to mental health evaluations, according to David Luxton of the state Office of Forensic Mental Health Services. Snohomish, Yakima and Grays Harbor counties are also participating.

Luxton said the purpose of teleconferencing is to cut down on the time it takes inmates to receive court-ordered competency evaluations from Western State Hospital.

Jail Chief Jose Briones said the wait time has been a real problem at the Island County jail.

“It can take days, weeks or sometimes even months,” he said.

As a result, court cases grind to a halt. Sometimes defendants end up serving more time in jail than their sentences because they were waiting 70-90 days for an evaluation and then waiting additional time for competency restoration, Briones said.

Luxton said the first evaluation through teleconferencing occurred at the Snohomish County jail a few weeks ago and it went well. The inmate was worried that he was being evaluated by robots through the teleconferencing system, which actually provided the evaluator with a pretty good clue to the state of his mental health, he said.

The Office of Forensic Mental Health Services is a relatively new department within the Department of Social and Health Services. The purpose of the department, according to its mission statement, “is to lead and manage a system of forensic mental health care that assists the courts and justice system to protect both public safety and the rights of accused mentally ill persons, by providing timely, high quality, and data informed mental health services.”

Teleconferencing mental health evaluations for jail inmates may help the state respond to a court decision commonly referred to as the Trueblood case. In 2015, the U.S. District Court ruled that the state Department of Social and Health Services was violating the rights of inmates suffering from mental health disabilities and ordered the state to complete evaluations within a certain time frame. The state is fined for every day past the timeline that an inmate waits.

Inmates have to agree to be evaluated through the telehealth program, Briones said, but it could cut down the wait time to just two or three days. The inmate would sit in front of a large screen and a camera and communicate remotely with a mental health professional.

The technology isn’t new; there are a variety of telehealth tools that connect health providers with patients across the country. Luxton, in fact, worked to set up telehealth systems within the U.S. military.

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