‘Our modern mental health institutions’: Number of attempted suicides at Dane County Jail rises

Sheriff: New tower will be 'enormous help'

This year, attempted suicides in the Dane County Jail are on pace to be the highest since record keeping began in 2013.

According to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, more than 40% of the jail population has some level of mental illness and 80% deal with some kind of alcohol or drug abuse issues.

Journey Mental Health Center crisis worker Tiagan Dahl said being in jail can heighten people’s risk for suicide.

“I think it’s the hopelessness. The idea of being incarcerated can change your entire life,” Dahl said. “Jail is not a great place to be and I think, once you’re in there, it really hits home.”

With barriers including a shortage of mental health professionals, Dahl said getting into treatment facilities that may better serve those with mental health issues can take days or weeks.

“When somebody gets in trouble and they come in contact with law enforcement, jail is the quickest way to place somebody,” she said. “We see that a lot of people not meeting basic needs tend to commit crimes because basic needs aren’t being met, such as food, housing, clothing and access to medical treatment, as well as mental health treatment.”

Mahoney said it’s a nationwide issue that’s no different in Wisconsin.

“We have 72 sheriffs and 72 jails, and those 72 jails are the largest mental health institutions in our state,” Mahoney said.

In 2013, the Dane County Jail recorded 21 suicide attempts. That rose to 35 in 2014 before dropping to a low of 13 in 2017.

‘Our modern mental health institutions’: Number of attempted suicides at Dane County Jail rises

In 2018, that number rose to 41 and, up to October of this year, the jail had tracked 39 attempted suicides.

This comes at a time when the jail population has been steady, according to Mahoney.

“The fact that the numbers increase is really the fact that our jails are our modern mental health institutions today,” he said. “Where there’s really a need now is options, options other than jail that create a criminal justice record for an individual that may be better served by being in an intermediate mental health facility.”

Along with long wait times, Dahl said poverty can be another barrier for mental health care. She said she would like to see additional funding for accessible resources.

“I think it’s easy for society to view this as a behavioral or criminal issue,” she said. “When we look at the bigger picture, we see it could be a mental health issue or poverty issue.”

“For us who are the boots on the ground in terms of mental health professionals and law enforcement, we have to be diligent to screen people for mental health symptoms and get them connected to mental health services as opposed to putting them in jail,” Dahl said.

Mahoney said all inmates receive a mental health evaluation upon booking, and those deemed unsafe to be housed in jail are taken either to a hospital or Winnebago Mental Health Institute. Those in jail with mental health issues are cared for by professionals.

Since 2010, there has been only one year with more than one completed suicide. There have been no completed suicides so far in 2019.

‘Our modern mental health institutions’: Number of attempted suicides at Dane County Jail rises

“We want to make sure we’re providing the highest level of care, both medically and mental healthwise, to those individuals in our community,” Mahoney said. “It’s the smart thing to do and the right thing to do.”

Still, Mahoney acknowledged the current housing situation in which the jail has to house some inmates in solitary confinement will just exacerbate mental health issues until a new tower with hospital-style housing opens in 2024.

“For the first time since the first Dane County Jail in 1839, we’re actually going to have proper and acceptable housing for people with medical and mental health conditions,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this long before I was sheriff … about the need to create housing that meets the value system of this county, and we’re finally going to do that.”

Mahoney said the change is a bit of hope on the horizon.

“It will be an enormous help,” he said.

Mahoney said there are additional factors that play into jail suicide and mental health issues, including the opioid epidemic and homelessness.

Dahl stressed that there’s always hope, with plenty of resources including the 211 hotline and the Solstice House Warmline at 608-244-5077. More information on Journey Mental Health services can be found here.

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