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

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2018

By Dan Gunderson

MPR News/90.1 FM

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.

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“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.

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.

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.