Jail cells now de facto mental health care units in Dane Co.

Solitary confinement compounds illness, makes it worse, experts say
Dane County Public Safety Building

Four concrete walls and a mail slot through which to communicate with the world is what individuals in mental crisis are given in the Dane County Jail.

Unable to be in general population for their own safety and that of others, solitary confinement is the best option currently available in the jail.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is well aware this is not an appropriate place for people in mental crisis. That is why he is asking county officials to explore options to create a jail that is more functional.

“Solitary confinement is designed as a method of discipline for inmate populations that do not follow the rules or fight with staff who knows right from wrong. To place somebody in a solitary confinement cell who has a mental health need or acute medical condition and their only violation is that they suffer from a mental illness or medical condition to me is a significant problem that needs to be addressed,” Mahoney said.

“It compounds the illness and makes people worse,” said Sue Petkovsek, president of the Board of Directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Dane County, a mental health care advocacy organization.

Petkovsek said individuals in mental crisis need appropriate mental health care, not further trauma that comes from solitary confinement.

“It is documented that it makes things worse. Even people that go into prisons and jails that are mentally sound, after they’ve been in isolation many come out with mental illness because it is so stressful,” Petkovset said. “How does our society treat mentally ill people? Not very well. We need more services, bottom line.”

To help address the changes to the Dane County Jail a public forum will be held by NAMI Dane County on Aug. 25 from 5-7 pm.

The Dane County Jail houses between 700 and 800 inmates each day. On average 40 percent of that population has a diagnosable mental illness. The jail currently has 20 solitary confinement cells, 15 for male prisoners and five for female prisoners.

Those solitary confinement cells have been seeing increased use as a result of a state policy change. Earlier this year the Mendota Mental Health Institute stopped accepting adult males needing emergency detention. If a bed can’t be found for those patients in local hospitals, two law enforcement officers are now required to drive the individual to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh. For law enforcement officers in Dane County that is a two-plus-hour drive one way.

That drive does not always happen.

“It has risen to the levels that we know law enforcement officers are bringing people to jail charged with a crime so that they can get mental health care in our jail and that is wrong,” Mahoney said.

Law enforcement officials from several jurisdictions have been asking the state to reconsider their decision and make the Mendota Mental Health Institute an option for individuals in crisis.

A study of the Dane County Jail has been completed and Mahoney is hoping dialogue will begin with county leaders to find a way to correct problems with the current jail. The study found that addressing the current issues will cost approximately $130 million.

Mahoney said that in addition to inadequate facilities and services to treat individuals with mental illness there is also an aging infrastructure.

The maximum security wing of the jail is located on the top two floors of the City and County Building, and was built in 1953. Mahoney points to failures in the infrastructure there as presenting safety concerns.

“The infrastructure is beginning to fail. We’ve had an incident where we’ve had inmates actually locked in their cells, their entire block locked and unable to get them evacuated for up to 3 hours and that’s a life and safety issue,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney believes that while there is a significant cost to address the issues surrounding the current jail, there is also a cost in not doing so.

“Doing nothing or not properly addressing the needs of people within our jail will be a significant societal cost as well,” Mahoney said.