MADISON, Wis. -

It was never intended to be one, but changes in the mental health care landscape have turned the Dane County Jail into what some are calling a de facto mental health care facility.

“The jail is not intended to be a mental health care facility either short term or long term,” says Dave Mahoney, Dane County Sheriff.

Increasingly the jail has been called upon to treat individuals in crisis needing emergency detention.  A mental health care advocate believes the increase is a result of too few services and health care facilities to deal with emergency detentions.

“Within the last couple months, that’s been a very difficult thing trying to find a bed.  The hospitals have pushed back saying they don’t want to fill all of their beds with emergency detentions,” says Sue Petkovsek, President of the Board of Directors for NAMI.

Petkovsek says the problem was made worse when Mendota Mental Health Institute stopped accepting emergency detention patients.  Law enforcement officers in Dane County would now have to drive the individual 85 miles to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh.  Because it is required that two officers be involved in the transfer, it would impact public safety by taking those officers out of the area for several hours.

As a result, Petkovsek says too often the jail becomes the last option to get the individual to a place where they will be safe.

“There are people that we know this has happened to within the past couple of months,” says Petkovsek.

While the jail does allow the individuals to be assessed and monitored, it does not provide them with the mental health care that is needed.

“Absolutely not.   People that have mental illness should not be in a jail.  They should be treated in a medical facility, not in a cell,” says Petkovsek.

Sheriff Mahoney agrees that the aging jail does not have the proper facility to deal with an increasing number of people with mental illness.  He believes the current jail facilities need to be reviewed and changes made to handle an increasing jail population.

Currently, because emergency detention patients can’t be in general population they are placed in isolation cells.

“To place somebody who is in crisis, who is suicidal or in a manic state and place them in a concrete slab, aluminum toilet and there only interaction with other humans is through a mail slot in a door is in my mind not what we in Dane County believe we should be doing,” says Chief Mahoney.

Petkovsek believes the solution is to add services and facilities for individuals needing emergency detention that can easily be accessed by first responders.

“Perhaps we should create a drop off center for emergency detention folks that need attention right away so that they can have this area to go to.  People can be assessed and helped in that manner and officers can drop them off and get back on the job,” says Petkovsek.