Boulder County Jail: mental health provider of last resort

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has seen a lot of changes in his 17 years on the job. One of the biggest is the increase in prisoners suffering from mental health issues.

When he started as sheriff, the jail population diagnosed with mental illness was 13 to 15%, he said. “Today, on some days, it’s as high as 50%.”

The sheriff has worked hard with county, state and federal governments to put programs in place to help deal with the problem.

Some have required new staff and facilities. The jail has some additional mental health professionals, who are running ongoing therapy groups and working with individuals. In addition, the jail has become a site for a pilot program to create a diversion program for minor offenders.

“We have a person we call a navigator who does screening in cases that don’t involve victims,” Pelle said, using as an example an offender who steals a sandwich. Rather than using jail space, the navigator connects the offender with a mental health provider in the community.

“The biggest problem is finding a provider to work at Medicaid rates,” he said.

In addition, the county jail has opened an 18-bed unit for competency restoration to make up for a shortage of options at the state mental hospital in Pueblo. Competency restoration deals with inmates who have been declared incompetent to stand trial, but are capable, with medication and other treatment, of being able to understand and assist in their defense.

Pelle has also changed procedures for handling prisoners considered at risk for suicide or self-harm.

“It’s really a difficult proposition,” Pelle said. “We have 20 deputies to handle 500 inmates.”

Studies show that prisoners are at the highest risk in the first 72 hours after they are detained.

“A lot are detoxing. A lot are coming off a very emotional experience — domestic violence, violent arrest,” Pelle said. “They are feeling hopeless, cast aside, with no contact with family.

”The jail gives the inmates a red jumpsuit to wear, so they can be identified immediately as more at risk and houses them in a unit where they can receive more frequent monitoring.

The biggest change is the construction of a 46,000-square-foot facility with 250 beds, approved in a ballot measure by a 75% of Boulder County voters.

A good number of the inmates in diversion will likely be transients, who Pelle said have been in and out of jail over the years.

“We call them ‘frequent fliers.’ The idea is that anyone in jail who … is not a risk to the community can go in this less restrictive environment,” Pelle said. “They can perhaps participate in a work release program or raise vegetables in the jail garden.”

by Cindy Sutter