Sheriff’s reforms at jail intended to help mentally ill inmates, families

EVERETT — Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary spends a lot of time talking about the mental health care system.

As sheriff, Trenary oversees the Snohomish County Jail in Everett. That makes him the leader of the county’s de facto mental health hospital.

“In Snohomish County we run the largest mental health facility. We have used the jail to address mental illness more frequently than any other solution,” Trenary said. “The sheriffs who want to fix the problems have to get involved in mental health.”

For Trenary that has meant having conversations and making partnerships with people outside of law enforcement. It means trying to change how the county lockup is being used and recognizing what can be done to treat inmates and to help them from cycling in and out.

“We are partnering with others because it’s the right thing to do,” Trenary said. “The jail isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Roughly 40 percent of people booked into the county jail have histories of addiction, mental illness or both, officials say.

Trenary has initiated a series of reforms at the jail in an effort to prevent inmate deaths and address overcrowding and safety concerns.

As part of the shift, the sheriff’s office has been working closely with the Snohomish County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit that advocates for people living with mental illness and their families. NAMI offers educational classes and support groups for families and caregivers. Advocates push for legislation to better support mental health.

NAMI is teaming up with the sheriff’s office to offer a new program specifically for the families and friends whose loved ones are living with mental illness and frequently incarcerated or currently in jail.

The group, which will meet once a month in Everett, is being modeled after a similar program offered at the Monroe Correctional Complex for relatives of inmates living with mental illness.

The goal is to help families and friends better understand mental illness and to teach them how to cope. The group also will offer support to those families and friends, local NAMI President Keith Binkley said.

Families who are in crisis might have trouble navigating through the system. Some basic education and support can help, Binkley said.

“We want to give families firmer footing, to help them know they’re not alone, and give them resources so they can be better prepared to support their loved one,” he said.

That stability might help inmates make a more successful return to the community and prevent them from returning to jail.

A jail mental health professional will attend the monthly program along with a facilitator from NAMI.

Binkley is encouraged by the changes at the jail as well as Trenary’s willingness to partner with the nonprofit.

“They are really big-hearted and committed to doing it better,” he said.

Ed DaPra, the jail’s health services administrator, said the sheriff also has been emphasizing how corrections department workers can better care for mentally ill inmates.

“Part of that is making connections beyond the jail walls,” DaPra said.

The sheriff’s office is moving forward with reforms inside the jail. Medical records are now electronic. That technology provides quicker access to staff and should assist with speedier treatment. Inmates are undergoing medical and mental health screenings. The jail is turning people away if they have acute medical issues, including mental health problems, that can’t be safely managed behind bars.

The sheriff’s office also is working to get all of its custody staff crisis intervention training. The specialized training provides a primer on commonly diagnosed mental illnesses and their symptoms. Participants are taught advanced communication skills to interact with mentally ill people in crisis. The idea is help custody staff de-escalate situations with people experiencing a psychotic break or other mental health crisis.

The sheriff’s office has been working with the county’s Human Services Department to develop better release plans for inmates. If they have a place to stay and services set up before they leave they have a greater chance of not returning to jail or showing up in the county’s emergency rooms.

A facilitator has been hired to sign inmates up for public health insurance. That helps them access treatment and medications quicker.

“My goal is to find other options that don’t involve jail stays for nonviolent offenders who could use better alternatives,” Trenary said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

Programs

The Family Support Program is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of the month, beginning Jan. 22 at the Snohomish County PUD building, Room TC-2A, 2320 California St., Everett. The group is for family and friends of someone incarcerated at the Snohomish County Jail. More information: 425-339-3620

The Family Support Program offered for family and friends of inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex is held at 11 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month, at the MCC training center, 16730 177th Ave. SE, Monroe. More information: 425-231-5186

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