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Mental illnesses compound jail’s staffing, overcrowding woes

Staffing problems weighed heavily on David Gladieux’s mind when the Allen County Sheriff’s Department chief deputy spoke with reporter Chris Meyers for a story about changes in Indiana’s criminal code and sentencing guidelines.

Then, as if to punctuate Gladieux’s concerns, an inmate facing a low-level felony conviction committed suicide the same day Meyers’ story was published.

Robert Stanley Tyrrell, 48, was found hanging by a bedsheet in his cell Sunday night. Gladieux said the suicide was "100 percent unpredictable."

"He was not mentally ill; not on any type of watch," the chief deputy said, "What can you do when you’ve got upwards of 80 people in two separate blocks and one person to watch them? We are not staffed the way the jail was constructed."

Gladieux wants to hire nine additional jailers, a request the Allen County Council earlier rejected. He said he understands the council’s desire to "wait and see" whether Indiana code changes, which translate to fewer offenders being sent to the Department of Correction, will result in the jail population increases expected.

Assigning inmates to work release and Community Corrections will help reduce the strain on staffing, but it’s not an option in all cases, he said.

Still, additional jail staff is sorely needed here and in other northeast Indiana communities, as the Sunday story noted.In addition to the strain from the code and sentencing changes, the state’s decision to close psychiatric hospitals has turned county jails into de facto mental institutions.

A report released in April by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that, nationally, there are 10 times more people with severe mental illness in state prisons and local jails than in state psychiatric hospitals. A jail population in which a large percentage of the inmates suffer from mental illness obviously requires not only

more jail staff, but specially trained staff.

"Prison and jail officials have few options," according to the April report. "Although they are neither equipped nor trained to do so, they are required to house hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill inmates. In many cases, they are unable to provide them with psychiatric medications. The use of other options, such as solitary confinement or restraining devices, is sometimes necessary and may produce a worsening of symptoms. Yet, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the prison and jail officials are blamed."

"We’re dealing with a jail that wasn’t built to accommodate these people," Gladieux said. "We can only do so much. The judges, the prosecutor -- they recognize it. What other option is there?"

In Allen County’s case, money generated by the sheriff’s department from contracts with small communities and from school resource officer grants would allow for additional hires with no additional burden to taxpayers. The money now goes to the county’s general fund.

Other northeast Indiana counties might not have the same resources if their jail populations increase. Even if they don’t, they also face the issues with inmates suffering from mental illness.

State officials must do a better job addressing mental illness – supporting the Carriage House, Park Center programs and others that keep people with mental illness in treatment, healthy and out of trouble.

County officials must ensure alternative corrections programs are in place and that jail staff have the resources and the numbers to accommodate the inmates who must be behind bars.