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Middle River speaks on mental health in incarcerated populations

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 5:48 PM EST
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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Mental health professionals report many incarcerated people struggle to manage their mental health.

An inmate died at Middle River Regional Jail on Dec. 31 after being arrested the week before.

Middle River officials say every inmate goes through a mental health screening when they arrive, but they say they’re not a mental health facility.

“We do not provide mental health treatment. Our role is to keep people safe, as best we can. We like to think we’re fairly successful at that, but sometimes we’re not,” said MRRJ Superintendent Jeffery Newton.

Newton said they don’t have the resources to treat mental health, and it’s a matter of finding those resources at higher levels.

“How do those sources get funded? And whose responsibility is it to fund it? Is it the state’s responsibility to fund those resources, or is it the local jurisdiction’s to fund those resources?” he said.

He said the community tends to misunderstand their role in mental health treatment.

“If someone comes into our custody with an underlying mental health issue, I think there’s the expectation in the community and certainly the expectation in that individual’s family that we’re going to treat that person, and that’s not our role,” Newton said.

Phil Harmon, Licensed Professional Counselor at Augusta Health, said many people going to prison have mental health conditions, and often prison can exacerbate those issues.

“It’s not good for you, by any means, but people tend to survive it. The prevalence of mental illness from the articles I looked at was anywhere from 25% to 64%,” Harmon said.

Harmon said most prisons don’t have the resources to manage these conditions, and it would cost a lot to get those in place.

“It would cost millions of dollars, that I doubt the state has, but you need more people available to provide mental health services, counseling, to help people learn more effective adjustment to dealing with the outside world,” Harmon said.

The Board for Local and Regional Jails has the following guidelines for mental health treatment and care:

To establish minimum standards for health care services, including medical, dental, pharmaceutical, and behavioral health services, in local, regional, and community correctional facilities and procedures for enforcing such minimum standards, with the advice of and guidance from the Commissioner of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and State Health Commissioner or their designees.

Newton said it would be beneficial to see more specific guidelines put in place by the board.

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