The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Mental health issues can pose challenges at jail


David Grieder

Programs and Services Coordinator Melissa Haack was one of two jail staff last month to complete a weeklong crisis intervention training for at-risk subjects facing the criminal justice system.

CLOVIS — Going to jail isn't most people's idea of fun, and all the less so if you're coming down or dealing with a health issue at the time.

That's not exactly a new challenge, according to Curry County Adult Detention Center Administrator Mark Gallegos, who said last week that many incoming detainees struggle with a combination of substance abuse and mental health disorders, with the symptoms of each often mocking one another.

"When people come in off the streets, it's a challenge," he told The News, estimating that eight out of 10 new inmates are on some kind of substance or have been in the past 24 hours, and more than half have a mental health disorder. It can take a week or more for a person on withdrawal to recalibrate, he said, which makes it all the more challenging to begin addressing mental health needs during the average jail stay of five days.

But that's enough time to get something going — either identifying existing treatment needs and medications and fulfilling them, consulting with professionals and creating a treatment plan while in custody, or making referrals to local or out of town agencies.

"We're not a psychiatric facility, but we're the first step," Gallegos said. In many cases, he said, inmate encounters or is directed to their first professional evaluation through the jail.

"When a detainee comes into the facility, that connection between law enforcement and myself, we have a policy and procedure that goes into effect immediately."

That includes a physical and mental health assessment in the first hour after booking, and as needed a consultation or referral with Clovis' office of Mental Health Resources, Inc. MHR also handles referrals from the juvenile detention center.

Gallegos said social workers and a psychiatric nurse practitioner are available for more extensive work, to include developing a behavioral health plan for inmates with longer jail commitments.

District Attorney Andrea Reeb agreed last week with Gallegos' assessment of the high correlation between substances and arrests.

"I think 90 percent of the people who come through the criminal justice system are on some kind of controlled substance, or addicted to alcohol or some kind of opiate. Those seem to be the bottom underlying factors of almost every crime we see," she said. "Now, I'm estimating."

For those who struggle more with substance abuse, Lighthouse Mission is one of the facilities where people with or without prior jail time can get treatment, said its executive director.

"The most effective part of it, to get sober and get well, is being away from their environment," said Richard Gomez. "The six months they're away from their environment, their whole life changes, their perspective changes."

The sober, live-in drug and alcohol recovery program, offered separately for men and women, includes morning classes, afternoon volunteer work, church services and a 12-step recovery program, Gomez said. There are currently two women and 17 men enrolled in the respective programs, which have run for about 15 years.

There is still some recidivism, but Gomez emphasized that "recovery is a lifetime of decisions."

As for mental health, treatment out of town - even while in custody - is available for more demanding needs. With some cooperation from the court, jail staff can recommend inmate referrals for a seven-day commitment to the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, run by the state's Department of Health.

Gallegos estimated that in the past two years some 60 local inmates were referred for the week-long commitment at the BHI's forensic institute, a lockdown unit for pending court cases, while some 15 inmates arrested on less serious misdemeanor charges such as trespassing or concealing identity were referred for a civil commitment.

Last month, two additional jail staff completed a week-long Crisis Intervention Training focusing on prevention and intervention techniques for at risk subjects. Gallegos said he hoped to some day see a more robust Crisis Intervention Team (there are currently four trained at the jail) that can work with law enforcement to send case managers to certain calls, say for a suicidal subject, and possibly bypass an arrest altogether to recommend a subject directly for treatment.

"We want people in society that are functioning in society, rather than in these walls," Gallegos said.


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