When inmates can get the care they need to stabilize themselves while in custody, corrections officers and other staff can feel safer, officials say.

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Mental-health issues can complicate a defendant’s experience in the criminal-justice system. A program in the Yakima County jail seeks to ease that burden, to the benefit of both inmates and staff

A Yakima County jail official estimates that more than one-quarter of the inmates there — or more than 200 people — could qualify for some level of mental-health support.

While jails are constitutionally obligated to provide medical care, the same standard does not apply to general mental-health services, said Yakima County Department of Corrections director Ed Campbell.

The department sets aside about $250,000 a year to fund a staff of mental-health experts who work directly at the jail.

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When inmates can get the care they need to stabilize themselves while in custody, corrections officers and other staff can feel safer, Campbell said.

Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health has been coordinating the program for about 20 years.

The mental-health team — which consists of two therapists, two case managers, two pharmacists and a mental-health assistant — sees between 90 and 100 inmates a week.

The jail has about 725 inmates — about 450 held on local charges and the rest being held on contracts with other jurisdictions.

Referrals can come from many sources: probation officers, corrections staff, family members and defense attorneys.

“Once they are on our radar, we put a lot of energy into making sure they get needs met,” said Nicole Wright, a therapist and the jail’s mental-health team leader for Comprehensive.

The mental-health staffers interview each referred inmate and decide on the best course of treatment, including whether they need any medications.

Inmates are given the opportunity to learn coping skills to deal with their illness and with the experience of being in jail.

The mental-health team also participates in deciding where inmates should be housed in the jail — a key first step in eliminating potential problems. For instance, one inmate might do well alone, while another would feel better in a group.

For their part, corrections staff members also receive training that helps them identify when someone might need mental-health treatment.

Several sergeants, for example, recently attended training on recognizing suicide warning signs. Officers keep an eye out for irregular behavior, such as hallucinations or statements that don’t make sense, that may indicate a mental-health referral is in order.

In some cases, inmates may already be receiving services from Comprehensive, so it’s easier to maintain that connection while they are incarcerated.

One of the difficulties of working at the jail is that some inmates may be there for only a few days. Referrals to outside services may be the best in those instances.

“Our goal is still the same: How can we serve them the best?” said Ed Thornbrugh, Comprehensive’s vice president.

Some inmates take advantage of the contact with Comprehensive in the jail to follow up once they are released.

National studies suggest that at least one-third of inmates have some sort of mental-health issue. Some of those are also addicted to drugs or homeless.

The goal is to build up inmates’ “resiliency” to various challenges. That allows them to reach a higher level of functioning and achieve their recovery goals, whether that’s to stop going to jail or avoid thoughts of suicide.

“We celebrate even small successes,” such as making an appointment or maintaining a medication routine, Wright said.

Campbell said he believes the mental-health program has helped reduce assaults and suicides in the jail. “We aren’t going to eliminate suicides in the jail, but we have seen a dramatic reduction.”

The jail has reported four suicides in the past seven years, compared with more than one per year in the five years before that, Campbell said.

Destini Baker, a Yakima woman who in January was the second graduate of the county’s specialized mental-health court, recalled that the jail’s mental-health staff was very responsive during the six months she spent in jail before being transferred to the specialty court. A charge of possessing a stolen vehicle was dismissed once she completed court-ordered requirements.

“They go out there and they work their magic and get you what you need, if it’s something they can possibly help with,” Baker said.

While she recalled difficulty with obtaining some medications while in custody due to their restricted nature, Baker said the staff seemed to genuinely care about the inmates.

“They definitely let you know that they are there for their clients only,” she said.