An old Minnesota jail is now a leader for inmate mental health

Clay County Correctional facility
The booking area of the Clay County Correctional Facility in Moorhead before inmates were moved into the facility. A mental health assessment is now part of the process when new inmates arrive at the jail.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

When Clay County officials started planning to replace its jail, the oldest in the state, they gathered around a table to start building a wish list for the new jail's design.

"One of the first things we talked about, one of the big needs we felt, was having proper housing for those individuals in our custody that have mental health and behavioral issues," recalls Julie Savat, the jail's administrator.

Staffers visited psychiatric wards at local hospitals and used some of what they learned to tell architects what they wanted to see in a behavioral health jail unit. At the top of their list: A quiet area away from the rest of the jail population, individual cells and a shared space outside those individual cells.

The new, $52 million jail opened this fall in Moorhead with 209 beds. Its 18-bed behavioral health unit is in the back of the building. Soundproofing helps keep the noise down, and inmates housed there can get mental health care without leaving the unit.

Clay County Correctional facility Julie Savat
Clay County Correctional Facility administrator Julie Savat.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

It's a unique design for a Minnesota jail.

"Typically, in multi-floor facilities, the area from the upper floor to the lower is open to below," said Tim Thompson, who directs the Minnesota Department of Corrections' inspection and enforcement unit. "The physical plant design for Clay County is that there is a hard floor separating the upper housing from the lower. This was designed to help mitigate sound transfer, which has been known to affect some persons will mental illness."

Clay County doesn't have good data on how many inmates arrive with a mental illness. Staff in the new jail will now be keeping much more detailed data. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that, on average, 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women in jails across the country have a mental illness.

Moorhead, Minn. in Clay County
Moorhead, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

In addition to the data tracking and the building design, Savat said she plans to expand training and programming to address its inmates' mental health needs. All jail staff will be trained in crisis intervention. The county also approved two full-time mental health care provider positions to be based inside the jail.

Behavioral health care providers Lakeland Mental Health is under contract to staff those positions. Brian Martin, an outpatient supervisor with Lakeland, said that mental health providers were funded for only four hours of work a week at the old jail, and they primarily responded to crisis situations.

Having mental health professionals at the jail full time will mean that inmates can be assessed immediately and get medication or treatment if needed. Martin said that should reduce tensions between inmates and staff.

"When people are anxious, when people are depressed, and there's a lot of commotion around them, if they don't feel safe, they're more likely to act out," he said. "They're more likely to be angry and aggressive."

Clay County Correctional facility cell block
The facility has a capacity of 209 inmates with plans to expand to 225 beds.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The new jail will also expand its offering of classes that are available to inmates, on topics from parenting to anger management and personal finances, taught by volunteers with the jail ministry program.

"To get the help for mental health issues is really imperative, because nothing else functions well when you're dealing with mental health or behavioral issues," said Violet Deilke, a member of the jail ministry board. She thinks the expanded class offerings and the mental health treatment will give inmates a much better chance of rehabilitation.

"So that's first and foremost," she said.

Clay County is still developing the measures it will use to assess whether the changes have been successful. Key among those measurements, Martin said, must be whether inmates leave the jail connected with a mental health care provider.

"If that reduces the amount of involvement they have with law enforcement," he said, "that's absolutely wonderful."

Clay County Correctional facility cell.
In addition to design changes to reduce noise, the behavioral health unit in the new jail has individual cells instead of the double cells used in the rest of the jail.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

County officials also recognize the need for services out the door. Clay County's social services director, Rhonda Porter, has been involved in planning for mental health programs in the new jail. Too often, she said, inmates leave the jail with little support, and end up right back in the justice system, when what they really need is mental health care.

"If we have nothing to offer when they're released back to the community, and we haven't been able to address their housing needs, or their health care needs or their mental health or substance use needs out in the community, the revolving door will happen," she said.

Now, every inmate — whether they have diagnosed mental health issues or not — will be connected with community services before they are released.

In the next couple of years, Porter said, she'd like to start providing substance abuse treatment in the jail. She'd also like to start a mental illness diversion program — in the same vein as one established in Blue Earth County — that's designed to get help for people with mental illness and keep them out of jail.

All the updates are crucial, Savat said, because ignoring the mental health needs of inmates affects the entire community.

"We've got to remember these people are in our community," she said. "They could be our neighbors. They could be people we work with. Everybody can have problems. We've got to get away from the mindset where you throw them in jail and throw away the key, and it's all about punishment. That's not going to help anybody in the long run."

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