When someone is an inmate at the Douglas County Jail, they are locked up because they are charged with violating the law.
Chances are they may also have a substance abuse problem or a mental health disorder.
“It’s very common for inmates to have mental health issues,” said Cindy Naff, a therapist who is a member of the Bert Nash staff that works with inmates at the jail. “We’ve noticed it’s increasing.”
Inmates with drug or alcohol problems are also common.
“A high number of inmates have substance abuse issues,” said Madison Husman, a member of the Bert Nash team at the jail.
Mental health issues are not a new problem among inmates.
“It’s been a long issue with us,” said Ken McGovern, who has been Douglas County sheriff since 2004 and began his law enforcement career with the sheriff’s office in 1982.
The sheriff’s office has a long-standing relationship with Bert Nash to provide mental health services for inmates as well as for law enforcement personnel who are going through a mental health crisis.
A Bert Nash team of therapists started working at the jail in 2000.
“I think we’re good partners,” said McGovern, who is a member of Bert Nash’s Governing Board of Directors. “Not only on the corrections side, but on the operations and patrol side. Bert Nash therapists have come in and done support groups after we’ve had a major incident, or officers who are going through a crisis can reach out to them. I see them as a valuable asset.”
When someone is booked into the county jail, part of the intake process includes a series of questions to try and assess the person’s mental health. The questions include: Do you have a history of mental illness? Have you ever been hospitalized for a mental illness? Are you receiving mental health counseling? Have you ever thought about suicide? Are you thinking about suicide now?
Members of the on-site Bert Nash staff review the inmates’ answers and respond accordingly.
“A yes answer to any one of those mental health questions and the person is put on our daily list and we go see them,” said Sharon Zehr, leader of the Bert Nash jail team. “Our role is to provide mental services to the inmates.”
A recent example of a point-in-time count, which is based on the intake responses at the time of booking, showed almost 30 percent of inmates were identified as having mental health issues; 9 percent were identified as having severe mental health issues; and 20 percent were on medications for mental health issues.
Those numbers are typical.
“It used to be, mental health was a secondary issue,” said Sheriff McGovern. “Now we see it as much as an issue as physical health.”
Bert Nash team leader Zehr credits the Douglas County sheriff with recognizing the importance of addressing the mental health issues among inmates.
“What’s the reason for the difference? I think the sheriff, because he really believes in the whole concept of helping people,” Zehr said. “I think he’s really the driving force.”
Members of the Bert Nash team view inmates as people who, yes, have violated the law, but may also have mental health issues that contributed to their legal problems.
“We see somebody who has had a really messed up life and who needs some help and guidance,” Bert Nash team member Naff said. “Even when I get frustrated, and we all do, I always think there is one who is going to make a change.”
Steve Hornberger, Douglas County undersheriff, who oversees the correctional officers at the jail, appreciates the work the Bert Nash therapists do for inmates.
“Bert Nash is an integral part of this facility and provides a great service,” Hornberger said. “We appreciate everything they do.”
Some inmates, while incarcerated, can become depressed or reach the point of being suicidal.
“Sometimes there will be an inmate who goes to court and they get bad news and they say they’re going to kill themselves,” Naff said. “The jail staff will call us to assess them to see if they are just upset or if they really have a plan to attempt suicide. Our job is to decide whether to put them on suicide watch, close observation, or sometimes we do send someone to a psychiatric hospital from here.”
Oftentimes, the Bert Nash staff sees inmates who are repeat offenders.
“We have frequent fliers, we call them, who come in and out a lot and we deal with them each time,” said team member Naff.
An inmate can make a request to see one of the Bert Nash therapists.
“We encourage them to let us know if they need anything, and they can be put on the list,” said team leader Zehr.
Zehr spends 15 hours a week at the jail and Naff spends 12. Madison Husman is the only full-time therapist at the jail. There are also two interns — Jayne Wakefield, a student from the University of Kansas, and Anne Duston, from Washburn — who are part of the Bert Nash team at the jail.
“Actually, this isn’t necessarily what I want to do,” said Wakefield, a senior in the school of social welfare. “But I knew it would stretch me and make me work. It’s been a really good learning experience.”
Besides meeting one-on-one with inmates, the Bert Nash therapists conduct group sessions on topics such as life skills, anger management, relapse prevention, substance abuse and dialectical behavioral therapy.
“They really like the group meetings,” Naff said.
“Most inmates just really want someone to listen to them,” Husman said. “So most of them are very willing to have a conversation with us.”
Another role the Bert Nash therapists provide is to help prepare inmates for reentry, in advance of their release from jail.
“Where before, when we let inmates out, they’d go out and then they’d come right back in. It can be a vicious cycle and clog up the system,” Sheriff McGovern said. “We try to take a proactive stance with identifying and working with Bert Nash.”
The presence of the Bert Nash team can have a positive effect on reducing the cycle of repeat offenders.
“We’re trying to put stopgaps in there to help inmates when they get out of jail,” McGovern said.
Those stopgaps include having Bert Nash therapists work with inmates who have mental health issues and help them put together a plan for when they get out of jail.
“We meet with them and we talk about their goals and what support systems they might need when they get out,” Bert Nash therapist Husman said. “So they have a plan in place when they are released and we work together to achieve those goals.”
While not every inmate who is released from jail will stay out of trouble or turn his or her life around, that’s always the goal.
“As long as I’ve been in mental health, I still have that hope that people want to change and can change,” Bert Nash team member Naff said. “I want to be here to help them do that.”