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Jackson County Jail needs help

An annual grand jury report released this week on the state of Jackson County correctional facilities recommended authorities ramp up mental health programs in response to what it described as an urgent need.

The 2014 grand jury report on Jackson County's correctional facilities, produced under an Oregon law requiring regular judicial review of jail conditions, found that although the Jackson County Jail, Juvenile Detention Center and Community Justice Transition Center "are well run and, in many cases, are progressive in their approach," mental health needs are putting a large drain on their resources.

Jackson County sheriff's corrections deputies told the grand jury that an increase in prisoners with mental health conditions had boosted the number placed on suicide watch, which requires deputies to check on the prisoners every 15 minutes. One memo provided to the grand jury said the jail has "become a secondary mental health facility" as arrests of persons with diagnosed mental illnesses have increased without expansion of local psychiatric facilities.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said her office hasn't suddenly been overwhelmed by mental health-related cases, but there has been a steady increase over time.

"It seems like it's something we're dealing with more and more often," she said.

Heckert said stress on the corrections system potentially could be eased if authorities in the criminal justice system and those in social services were more aware of the services they could offer each other.

"The mental health court really fits a need there," she said, referring to a new treatment court started by the county in May, which allows admitted defendants with mental health conditions the opportunity to have their charges reduced or dropped if they complete treatment programs set up through the court.

The grand jury recommended the jail hire at least one half-time licensed mental health worker to assist the full-time clinical social worker currently assigned there. It also recommended that a second full-time mental health worker be hired if possible, and that all county corrections staff attend crisis intervention training. Some Jackson County corrections deputies have already received the training, offered to local and state law enforcement officers through Jackson County Mental Health.

The report also recommended replacing or remodeling the jail, which is now more than 30 years old, expansion of the women's area at the Transition Center, increased job training and post-release housing for inmates and more nutritionally dense foods for inmates at the facilities.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471 or tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.