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At desks inside the intake bay of the Pulaski County jail, sheriff's deputies probe the mindsets of arrestees sitting next to them.

"Have there ever been a few weeks when you felt you were useless, sinful or guilty?"

"Do you tend to hold grudges or give people the silent treatment for days at a time?"

"Have you ever had worries that you just can't get rid of?"

Questions like these compose two surveys, one for men and one for women, that are filled out for every person who is processed at the 1,210-bed facility on West Roosevelt Road in Little Rock.

The Correctional Mental Health Screen for Men and for Women, developed by two professors with a grant from the National Institute of Justice, are meant to quickly identify people who could have serious mental illness.

A serious mental illness is categorized, generally, as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or other forms of psychosis.

Jail staff members began using the screening tool in August.

At first, some deputies thought it was voluntary, said Maj. Matthew Briggs, who oversees jail operations. That's since been corrected, he said.

Like several changes Pulaski County is undergoing, the questionnaires were inspired by Act 423 of last year's legislative session.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, and Reps. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, and Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, encourages all counties to have some form of mental health screening system.

Having a mental illness does not make a person more likely to commit a crime, said Steve Allen, a senior policy adviser with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The organization conducted research to form Act 423.

Rather, studies show that those with mental illnesses who end up in jail languish there longer, Allen said. They get involved in disciplinary violations, sometimes because of the noisy and disruptive nature of jail, or they sometimes don't have homes to be released to.

"It's just harder to get out," Allen said.

For those reasons, jails and sheriff's offices across the country have embraced screening tools to pinpoint people who are unstable or suicidal before they threaten themselves or others.

"In here, especially, we're looking for suicide prevention," Briggs said.

In the past five years, six Pulaski County inmates have died from suicide. Five deaths occurred at the facility and one at a hospital, according to jail data.

Before August, deputies and correctional officers relied on their mental health training to spot suicidal or potentially suicidal behavior, such as giving away possessions, apologizing to loved ones or saying goodbye, Briggs said.

Intake forms ask questions such as, "Does the arrestee have any observable mental health problems?" Deputies also ask the person whether he is contemplating suicide or has attempted suicide in the past. Medications are also logged.

But the mental health screening questions focus on the symptoms of a potential illness, rather than relying on a person to disclose a condition of which he might be unaware.

Questions are also designed so they can't be "easily defeated by lying," Briggs said.

An example includes, "Have you ever tried to avoid reminders, or to not think about, something terrible that you experienced or witnessed?"

On the questionnaire for women, a deputy marks a yes or no answer to eight questions, while the men's questionnaire has twelve. Six of the questions are the same, and the others are sex-specific.

A person who answers "yes" to enough questions is referred for either an urgent or routine mental evaluation. The results are kept in that person's jail file.

Everyone who is put in the jail is asked these questions, including people arrested on low-level misdemeanor charges who will leave after just a few hours.

People with higher-level charges undergo more in-depth mental health analyses, along with routine physicals.

The new screening isn't foolproof, Briggs said, mostly because people are usually more aggravated than normal right after they're arrested.

Some angry people "screened 'yes' at the door. But I'm screening you 30 minutes later, and the answer [to a question] is obviously 'no,'" Briggs said.

"So it's not a perfect tool. It's just a bit more information," he said.

Still, with that new information, employees can make better decisions -- in matters such as housing assignments or cellmates or medication and treatment options -- that affect both the people in jail and the jail's environment.

Briggs pointed to an example of a frequently arrested man who he always suspected had a mental health problem, but the new screening confirmed it.

"I know for a fact that he talks to himself and threatens himself," Briggs said. But, he said, if someone gets the man's attention, he'll snap out of it.

A knowledge of his schizophrenia can help those in law enforcement serve the man better, Briggs said.

"But if you don't know him, you don't know his history, then you would think this guy is threatening to kill everybody," he said.

Once enough data are collected, the screenings can help answer a long-standing unknown: How many mentally ill people are incarcerated in the Pulaski County jail?

National statistics indicate that between 15 percent and 20 percent of county jail inmates have some form of mental illness. In 2017, the jail processed about 21,200 people.

Chastity Scifres, a county attorney, said the initial screenings will help the jail establish solid base numbers, not only on the prevalence of mental illness but also how long those people stay in jail and how they conduct themselves while locked up.

That information will help with the county's ongoing effort to open a crisis stabilization center.

When operational, the center will be a place for police officers to take people who commit minor crimes while in the throes of mental health crises, instead of taking them to jail.

After it opens, county administrators want to know how many people the center is serving and whether people who typically wind up in jail are being treated instead.

There's also the potential for some mental health information to be uploaded into the Arkansas Crime Information Center, Scifres said.

That way, a law enforcement officer who encounters someone with a documented issue would get a fuller look at that person's mental state.

However, the details haven't been ironed out, and "it may never happen," Scifres said in an email.

Roughly 8,500 people have undergone the screening so far, Briggs estimated Tuesday, adding that aggregate data are not yet available.

The screening tool is still "in the infancy stages," he cautioned. "We're walking before we run."

But the potential's there.

"It kind of helps everybody, if everybody buys into it," he said.

Metro on 01/08/2018

Print Headline: Jail screening new arrivals' mental health

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  • Goad
    January 8, 2018 at 11:15 a.m.

    Outstanding work by the Pulaski County Jail staff & management. I applaud you in your efforts to ID mental patients and get them treatment. Good law Act 423.

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