Shawnee County corrections steps up efforts to deal with mental illness

Last year, Shawnee County’s corrections department provided its entire population six hours a week of psychiatrist time.

Now, those inmates receive 48 hours weekly from the department’s psychiatrist and its new psychiatric nurse practitioner.

Increasing that access to care is among steps corrections director Brian Cole’s department has taken as it has worked this year to enhance mental health resources at the county’s jail and juvenile detention center.

The commitment that department has shown toward improving those services has been “amazing,” said Lee Zellars, director of operations for community contracts-behavioral health for Tennessee-based Corizon, the corrections department’s health care provider.

The corrections department’s philosophy has evolved from one of constantly managing mental health crises to one of providing a continuum of care to help inmates with mental illness to improve their condition and prepare to re-enter the community, Maj. Tim Phelps of that department said this past week.

The jail and juvenile detention center have long dealt with mental illness concerns. Recent figures showed more than 20 percent of the corrections department’s inmates were on a status that would be considered “crisis,’” meaning they were either on suicide watch or on close observation due to the possibility they’d harm themselves, Phelps said.

“That’s significantly high for a facility our size,” he said.

Average populations are about 532 for the jail and about 23 for the juvenile detention facility, Phelps said.

County commissioners Kevin Cook, Shelly Buhler and Bob Archer voted 3-0 last August to approve a four-year extension of the county’s contract with Corizon Health, former Prison Health Services, which has been the corrections department’s medical services provider since 2003.

That extension included increasing the annual value of Corizon’s contract by more than $900,000 while expanding the corrections department’s mental health services team from three to nine and enabling it to provide both medical and mental health coverage seven days a week for two of its three work shifts, Phelps said.

The new arrangement kicked off Jan. 1. Phelps said it has enabled the department to provide more focused and individualized attention to help patients with mental illness to get past any crises they might be experiencing.

The department has also begun offering other services, including group and individual counseling.

Those involved say the addition of psychiatric nurse practitioner Toni Stagg has greatly enhanced the department’s ability to engage sooner and more in-depth with mentally ill inmates, particularly those with severe and persistent conditions.

Stagg said many inmates entering the jail have stopped taking medications for which they received prescriptions to deal with mental health problems.

“If we can get them re-stabilized and back on their meds, many times they can transition out and be successful,” she said.

Phelps said the corrections department as part of the arrangement has also acquired new computer software, which gives it “better reporting and tracking” regarding inmates who have received treatment for mental illness.

The department’s efforts also include continuing to work with Valeo Behavioral Health Care Inc., the county’s mental health services provider.

Phelps said he expected the changes the department was making regarding mental health would cause chaos among the inmate population, but that hasn’t happened.

“Although we have had difficulties on the operations side, I have not received a single complaint from the inmates about the nature of the care that they’ve received, and I didn’t expect that,” he said.

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