When I asked Diana Claitor, Executive Director of the Texas Jail Project, which jail in Texas offers an example of what’s working, she replied without hesitation: Brazos County.
So on Tuesday Nov. 2nd, members of the Criminal Justice and Mental Health Coalition visited Brazos County Detention Center to meet with jail leadership and tour the facility in an effort to learn more about their jail management approach, especially for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders.
Coalition members were welcomed by Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk and sat down with a group including jail administrator, Wayne Dicky, members of the CIT Division, jail medical staff, and staff from the community mental health center. A few things seemed to be working well.
Inmate Behavior Management
Mr. Wayne Dicky explained that Brazos County Detention Center was one of the first of four jails across the country that adopted the Inmate Behavior Management (IBM) program, a management strategy developed by the National Institute of Corrections. In fact, Brazos County is highlighted in their report from 2013 as a model program. Mr. Dicky credits the IBM philosophy for the culture at Brazos County jail. According to Mr. Dickey, about 94% of individuals in the jail at any given time follow the rules without need for disciplinary action.
CIT Division benefits from remaining a part of jail staff
Mr. Dickey explained that diversion is one of the jail’s main focuses. Working closely with the MHMR Authority of Brazos Valley, the CIT Division not only responds to crises, but also checks up on people in the community who have been incarcerated in the jail. The main purpose of the visits are to check on appointment and medication compliance in the hopes of preventing future crises and incarceration. Because the CIT division is part of the jail staff, they have more freedom and ability to prioritize community jail diversion strategies, rather than being pulled away for incidents like traffic collisions, for example.
People benefit from free counseling
In addition, the Brazos County Jail benefits from a close proximity and strong relationship with the Department of Psychology of nearby Texas A&M University. Not only does the university create more affordable community counseling options, but supervised psychology interns provide weekly counseling to individuals incarcerated in the jail. Counseling can be especially beneficial for individuals with a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis, explained Karlee Anderson, the local Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments (TCOOMMI) representative.
Personal recognizance (PR) bonds are easier when courthouse is educated on mental health
Karlee shared eye-opening information about her role in providing continuity of care for individuals in the Brazos County jail. One clear success is her ability to work well with local prosecutors. She provides mental health 101 trainings, works to ensure PR bonds are made available and connects people to services immediately upon release. Good relationships with the District Attorney and County Attorney’s offices make her job a lot easier.
Inpatient community beds are helping
Coalition members were eager to hear how the recent availability of publicly-funded community inpatient beds had made an impact, the result of work over multiple legislative sessions. The CIT Division clearly felt the beds had made a big difference, but more are always welcomed.
Information from screening and assessment effectively utilized
A topic in the limelight recently, the group discussed Brazos County’s mental health screening and assessment process for individuals entering the jail. Jail staff run the Continuity of Care Query (CCQ) on every individual entering the jail, the results of which are relayed to the TCOOMMI representative daily, along with results from the screening and assessment tool. At the same time, the new screening and assessment tool implemented in the aftermath of Sandra Bland’s death has raised some issues. For example jail staff may not have the appropriate training to implement the more complicated tool and the form lacks some detail in its instructions. Ideally, these tools are implemented by a mental health professional.
In addition to the implementation of the new screening tool, they face a number of other challenges.
Community health and prevention
The focus on community health brings into focus the serious gap in care for individuals with mental health disorders due to inadequately funded crisis and community mental health centers. Brazos County jail has implemented strategies to address this gap through a proactive Crisis Intervention Team and strong community relationships, but ideally individuals would have access to quality care well before a crisis. In addition, a common challenge throughout the state, Brazos County struggles to link individuals to substance use disorder treatment programs because local options are scarce.
Serious offenses and violent behavior pose biggest difficulties
As most jails are experiencing across the country, the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with someone who has serious mental health needs. Brazos County effectively diverts many of those individuals, but a particular challenge lies in diverting individuals who are exhibiting violent behavior and who have been charged with a serious offense. Although rare, these are not individuals the court wants to release and waiting for an inpatient bed at the maximum security hospital can take months, leaving the person stuck in jail.
Barriers to employing peer support specialists with a criminal record
Brazos County utilizes peers in the community, an important component of mental health services. With funds dedicated by the 84th legislature, the Department of State Health Services will be funding peer support reentry pilot programs at two local mental health authorities in 2016. However, LMHAs are strictly limited in their ability to hire individuals with a criminal history, making many peer support specialists who have been incarcerated ineligible, and Brazos County is no exception. Understanding the value of peer support and having “been there,” someone with a lived experience of incarceration would be an ideal candidate for a peer support reentry program. Although Sheriffs have discretion in allowing individuals with criminal history into the local jail, LMHAs are limited by the Texas Administrative Code.
Seventeen-year-olds still segregated in adult facilities
Coalition members were able to see where Brazos County holds 17-year-olds, who must be separated from the adult population in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Created to protect the youth, this requirement means the adolescents live in segregated housing usually reserved for punishment, with little programming or interaction with others. Many of the coalition members supported efforts to raise the age of criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18, which would help keep 17-year-olds out of an adult jail.
In-person visitation not available
Brazos County utilizes video visitation only, meaning individuals in the jail cannot receive visits from loved ones in person and their only contact is through a Skype-like video on a monitor. Although Mr. Dickey explained that they have been able to expand the frequency of visits through video visitation, research shows that in-person visitation reduces recidivism and is critical to a person’s ability to stay connected to their family during and after incarceration. Video visitation can and should be offered, as long as it is not a replacement for in-person visitation. The Texas Observer’s account of coalition member Doug Smith’s personal experience with video visitation can be read here.
Although Brazos County’s suicide prevention plan was somewhat unclear, they did explain that they prefer to monitor someone identified as at-risk for suicide in the common room where supervision is constant, a best practice approach. However, someone actively attempting to inflict self-harm is physically restrained. Ideally, restraints are used as a last resort or not at all, but we know that jail staff do not always have the training to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation.
Brazos County stands out for a number of reasons. Its commitment to jail diversion and prioritization of healthcare and mental health care seems to make a positive difference in the culture of the jail. At the same time, the lack of in-person visitation is a serious concern. Without hearing from individuals incarcerated in the facility, it remains difficult to fully understand the jail environment. That said, as Diana Claitor pointed out during the visit, the Texas Jail Project hears few complaints from family members about Brazos County Detention Center. If we have to live in a world with jails, Brazos County seems to be on the right path.