Boulder County emphasizes mental health services for offenders

At the Boulder County Jail, incarceration means an immediate mental health evaluation, and it begins at the booking desk.

That’s because Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has been a long-time proponent of providing mental health treatment as a way to keep people with mental illness from returning to jail.

Sheriff Joe PelleSheriff Joe Pelle in an interview with Insight’s John Ferrugia

“You have to decide,” he said, “what your philosophy is going to be. And if it’s warehousing (people) and security, this problem’s never going to get solved.”

Pelle has seen the need for mental health services grow exponentially since 2002.

“When I became sheriff, 13% of the inmates in our jail had an access one mental health diagnosis,” he said. “They had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar issues.”

Now, on some days, up to 60% of the jail population is receiving mental health services.

“We will see everything from a unique situational depression all the way up to the most severe where someone is actively psychotic or has suicidal attempts,” said Melanie Dreiling, a registered nurse and the jail’s health service administrator.

Her job is to help stabilize inmates so they can enter ongoing programs to help them normalize their lives and activities.

Boulder County JailInside the Boulder County Jail

“A lot of our clients that come in here, this is the first time they will get treatment. This is the first time they might even get diagnosed,” said Boulder Sheriff Commander Tim Oliveira who heads the jail’s programs and support services.

“Once somebody is stabilized from an acute illness… they can progress through the jail,” Oliveira said.

Inmates can receive ongoing medications if they need them, along with one-on-one counselling as well as therapeutic support groups. These are services Oliveira said are now essential in the Boulder County facility.

“Jails are becoming these mental health institutions,” he said. “Because people don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Boulder County JailMelanie Dreiling is the jail’s health services administrator

“The longer they are with us, the better they thrive,” explained Melanie Dreiling. “We really see people go from being actively psychotic to being a healthy, normal stable person when they leave our jail.”

And just as important, and essential, in the Boulder model is the Partnership for Active Community Engagement (PACE) program for those who don’t go on to prison, but are allowed back into the community on probation.

“We’ve put the probation officer, mental health provider, community health, public health provider, a and a case manager all under one roof,” said Sheriff Joe Pelle. “So that they’re not just leaving our jail without access to medication or without access to support.”

The goal of this program is to coordinate with prosecutors, judges, and the parole system to stop recycling the same people through the criminal justice system without any hope of success.

One example is Joe Dankowski, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He had been in and out of the Boulder jail for years. He said without the help he received while incarcerated and the ongoing services he gets through the pace program, he would be dead.

PACE program meetingJoe Dankowski meets with PACE program manager Matt Jaekel

“I know what I need to do to have a clear mind, to get back on track,” said Dankowski. “I have a big support. I have a huge support system.”

Matt Jaekel, manager of the Boulder County PACE program, said Joe Dankowski is one of about 100 clients served annually.

“We provide people structure,” he said. “Our entire team knows who you are. You see them daily. We build relationships, but you also have the probation element that’s here to around accountability for attendance and participation.”

Joe Dankowski said he was out of control: fighting, using drugs, not taking proper medication for his condition, and being charged with felonies. He kept cycling in and out of jail. But not anymore. He said he now understands his illness, and his treatment.

“It’s remarkable,” said Jaekel. “He’s the same personality, absolutely, and he’s a person who believes in himself.”

While Jaekel acknowledges the upfront costs for the PACE program are expensive, he argues that treatment for patients like Dankowski, versus putting them in jail, is a bargain for taxpayers

“It costs more to put a person in jail and keep them there per day than it does to utilize our services,” he said.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle agrees and said he has real numbers to illustrate how the overall program benefits taxpayers. He said Boulder County tracks a target group of inmates who were continually in and out of jail before getting needed mental health services and entering the pace program.

“We’ve had a savings of about 10,000 jail bed days a year with a group of 50 or 60 people participating in that program,” he said. “It’s a lot of money.”

If you need mental health services, contact Colorado Crisis Services for confidential support: 844-493-TALK (8255) or text “TALK” to 38255.