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Bexar County Jail overcrowding … it’s all in your head



Greg Harman
gharman@sacurrent.com

If you’ve got a naturally sunny disposition (despite the long shadow of those prison bars falling on your shoulders), chances are you’ve got more room to roam on the inside of Bexar County Jail these days. You may even be tempted to crack open a $3.59 can of “no bean” commissary chili to celebrate the new-found breathing room.
 
Hey. We know surviving the pileup of ’09 was no easy feat. [For background on overcrowding, scary voices, and suicide, see "Hang Time."]

Most of last year, the land of Los Orejones was full all the way up to its “Mother”-tattooed neck. With a capacity just shy of 4,600, Bexar County’s admin found itself juggling another 100 on top of that. Now we’re down in the 4,000 range and things are runnin’ smooth again — unless you happen to be mental.

It seems that despite all our cubic yards of reclaimed turf, the mental-health and suicide-prevention units are still packed tight. That is the initial assessment of national suicide expert Lindsay Hayes, who completed a three-day investigation of the jail policies and procedures with regards to suicide prevention last week. And it’s no wonder.

According to officials at University Health System, “The vast majority of persons screened by mental health at the time of booking had evidence … for a major mental illness.” And yet only a handful (about 25 per week — or the kind of crazy impossible to ignore) are weeded out at the door, according to Community Health Care Service officials.

UHS officials tell the Current that 900 Bexar County inmates (nearly one in four) on average are receiving psychiatric assistance from their staff. And the U.S. Department of Justice estimates three-quarters of county-level inmates nationally are suffering from one mental disorder or another.

“We’re not overcrowded in jail space; the nuance is, we are overcrowded in terms of mental-health space,” said Debra Jordan, deputy chief at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.

Although UHS had last year recommended expanding the mental-health unit into an adjacent area and been rebuffed by the jail administration, this time it really appears to be happening.

“We’ve asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards about opening some space across the street at the annex for a mental-health unit,” Jordan said. “Because the classification is what makes all the difference in the world. You can’t just house people wherever you want to house them. We need more mental-health space.”

We can hear the shrinks at UHS breathing a collective sigh of relief from here.

We’ve always thought of the Bexar County icebox as a crazy-making machine: If you’re not crazy going in, you soon will be. So this small victory (if its plays out) goes out to our manic-depressive comrades in stir. You are not forgotten.

Posted by gharman on 3/1/2010 5:13:51 PM
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