Everyone seems to have heard about Rikers Island prison in New York City and its horrors, overcrowding, deaths etc. I suppose it does not help Rikers’ public image much since it has been mentioned in every episode of Law and Order for over 20 years on television. And I further suppose Harris County Jail has been happy to fly well under Rikers’ blip on the national consciousness radar.
The Harris Co. Jail has a triaging setup that is situated RIGHT AT the front intake booking desk. A trained officer with a communicating wireless tablet can consult with a nearby consulting psychiatrist to start the referral process form evaluation and treatment within the jail complex. Harris Co. Jail has decided that it will not pursue a mental health “diversion” program like many other judicial systems have started. In point of fact, Texas has started dozens of pilot diversion programs in counties elsewhere in the state. This model is felt to fit better in smaller counties with much smaller local jail populations.
So rather than having the ‘diversion-referral process start in the courtroom, this process is situated at the receiving desk of the jail. The model is structured so that the staff, from the trained deputies to the consulting mental health providers (from counselors to psychiatric social workers and psychologists to the close-by psychiatrist) on down, have a more vertically integrated and functional system that makes sense. It can be activated for any arriving inmate right at the first contact within the jail. It is certainly a novel approach and should be studied and likely tried elsewhere.
The jail has its own inpatient unit, the Harris County Psychiatric Center, which has nearly 300 beds. This is filled all the time and has a waiting list from the rest of the jail’s population. The jail as a whole, has long known that 1 in 4 or its total population have mental illness and need medication based psychiatric treatment and management. Nationally, over 400,00 inmates have psychiatric illnesses needing ongoing treatment, a staggering number.
Texas’s and Harris County’s efforts are to be applauded, followed closely and studied. Hopefully, it is a sign of things to come.