JEFFERSON — An annual report shows the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has asked Jefferson County Jail administrators to increase inmate access to mental health services six of the last nine years.
In response, county jail mental health services have increased by five hours a week; however, the state has recommended adding even more.
In 2010, the jail offered 12 hours of mental health services to inmates per week, according to that year’s Department of Corrections Annual Inspection Report.
While the jail was found to be in compliance with all Wisconsin state laws and was commended for the jail’s safety and security for each of the nine years, Gregory A. Bucholtz, inspector at DOC’s Office of Detention Facilities, suggested increasing the number of hours mental health professionals are in the facility.
“Unfortunately, mental health services at the jail continue to only be provided for 12 hours per week,” Bucholtz wrote. “Given the increasing number of inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, this is an area that should be re-examined to increase available hours.”
The next year, according to the 2011 report, the jail increased access to mental health services by three hours to 15 per week. While Bucholtz acknowledged the increase, he suggested more.
“As noted earlier, mental health services at the jail experienced a slight increase in hours to approximately 15 hours per week,” Bucholtz wrote. “Given the increasing number of inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, this is an area that should be re-examined to increase available hours further than what was added this past year.”
The number hours of mental health services provided remained around 15 hours for the next five years, according to the reports.
While Bucholtz didn’t suggest an increase in hours provided in the reports from 2012-14, he did so again in the 2015 report.
“Although the average daily population at the jail has been relatively low compared to its rated capacity, it is suggested that administration review the feasibility of increasing the amount of mental health hours onsite from a qualified mental health professional,” Bucholtz wrote.
Bucholtz made the same suggestion to jail administration in 2016 and, in 2017, according to the report, the jail increased the hours to 17 per week.
Despite that two-hour boost, Bucholtz again asked for more hours in 2017 and 2018.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Margo Gray, who oversees the jail, that mental health has become a much more prominent aspect of jail administration in the last 20 years.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of our inmates have some sort of mental health issue,” Gray, who started in her position in June, said. “They’re either diagnosed with a mental health disorder, have addiction issues, coping issues or anxiety issues. We’d be negligent if we didn’t offer mental health services.”
Gray said there is no state law mandating that county jails offer mental health services, pointing out that the inspection reports only track the hours a clinician is in the facility.
While the jail documents 15-17 hours of mental health services with a certified mental health clinician, Jefferson County Human Services always is on call in case of a crisis, according to Gray.
In 2017, she said, Human Services logged 155 hours at the jail. This year through October, Human Services already had logged 223.75 hours in the jail.
“Unfortunately, Mendota and Winnebago mental health institutes are no longer the biggest mental health institutions in Wisconsin anymore,” Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Parker said. “County jails house more mentally ill than anywhere.”
Parker said that because of this, the sheriff’s office tries to get all of its deputies certified in crisis intervention.
“We push as many officers as possible across that table,” Parker said. “Because of what you’re seeing through cultural experiences in our county, at a societal standpoint, there’s a need within communities to address mental health.”
Often, inmates have more access to care inside than outside the jail, Gray said.
“We have an obligation to continue to care,” Gray said. “They don’t always have the money or insurance to seek out help and address their needs.”
Other areas in the reports that Bucholtz repeatedly pointed out as a concern were in minor maintenance and rules and in the jail kitchen.
Since 2013, it has been suggested to jail administration that the kitchen start making a sample food tray — also known as a “dead tray” — to set aside, wrap and keep frozen for three days. This gives the Health Department something to test in case of a food-borne illness in the jail.
“As noted in past inspection reports, there remains the concern that the kitchen is not maintaining sample meal trays from the serving line for each meal provided and saving them for 72 hours to be used in the event of an outbreak of a food borne illness,” Bucholtz wrote in his 2014 report. “Although not required under administrative code, the maintenance of sample trays is considered best correctional practice, and Jefferson County remains the only jurisdiction within the Southeastern Region that does not maintain sample meal trays.”
Gray said she understands the concern raised in the report, but there is a practical reason the suggestion has continued to be mentioned in the reports.
Seventy-two hours is three days of meals and often, the jail is serving different meals to inmates with different needs such as diabetics, and people with certain religious dietary restrictions or allergies.
“Where do you keep them?” Gray said. “We’re limited on space as it is.”