Harris County Creates Jail Mental Health Unit

The Harris County Sheriff's Office has created a mental health unit to provide specialized treatment and detention for mentally ill inmates. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports -- all inmates will be rigorously screened for mental health issues and then housed and treated based on their assessment.

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Step through the inter-lock doors of the Harris County jail, walk down a long hall and enter Unit 2P. Lt. Walter Bailey, a unit mental health specialist, says this is where inmates are housed while the staff determines how severe the inmate's condition is.

"This cell will be your cell which the person is not deemed to be necessarily suicidal or wishing to harm themself. And that leaves a little bit more of a normal type setup -- you have toiletries and you have a bunk setup and cot-type setup and a normal radio and intercom."

There are also safety cells made with rubberized walls, a flat mattress on the floor and a recessed intercom. These are the cells used for inmates who may be a threat to themselves or others. Harris County maintains the third largest jail in the nation, with a monthly average of 9,200 detainees. Sheriff Tommy Thomas says approximately 20 percent of inmates have some history of mental illness.

"I think we are all acutely aware of the growing concern for mental health care within this country. Particularly the lack of mental health care within our indigent community. In the 1970s and '80s scores of treatment facilities were either closed or significantly downsized. The result of this, a lot of these individuals suffering from mental illness ended up in county jails."

The Mental Health Unit includes a nurses station inside the cell block. Nurses, psychiatrists and pharmacists are staffed 24/7. Other cell blocks are white, but here there are soft colors on the walls. It's soothing for the inmates. Even the officers' uniforms are different - blue polos with khakis. It's less intimidating than traditional paramilitary uniforms. Texas Jail Commission Executive Director Don Munoz says Harris County is the first jail in the nation to provide this level of care for mentally ill inmates.

"I can tell you, I've been in charge of the Commission now for about a year but I've been in law enforcement for over 36 years, I guarantee you Harris County is in fact in the leadership today to be able to show the rest of the nation what can be done."

The Mental Health Unit is run through a collaboration with the Harris County Psychiatric Center and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Association of Houston. About 61 officers are assigned to the Mental Health Unit, which includes four cellblocks with 360 beds. Two more cellblocks are already earmarked to be added in the future. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.


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