PALO PINTO – Recently tasked by the Texas Legislature to identify and provide treatment for jail inmates with mental health problems, the Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Office is forging a unique partnership with Pecan Valley Centers for Behavioral and Developmental Healthcare.
The so-called "Sandra Bland Act" was passed by the Texas Legislature and went into effect in September 2017. Along with requirements for enhanced law enforcement racial profiling and de-escalation training is a requirement that county jails collect information to make a determination on an inmate's substance abuse, mental illness or "intellectual disability" and provide services.
Sandra Bland was pulled over by a Texas highway patrol trooper in July 2015 for a minor, and highly controversial, traffic stop. The incident became heated and the trooper pulled Bland from her car and arrested her for resisting and assaulting a peace officer. She hanged herself three days later while sitting in a Waller County jail cell.
Sheriff Brett McGuire told Palo Pinto County commissioners on Monday the local jail facility is in compliance with requirements related to physical and electronic monitoring of inmates.
"We were already ahead of the game on that," McGuire said, noting last week's state jail inspection. "The next thing is the one that is going to be more costly for us, unfortunately."
In most large county jails, or ones in counties where jail services are contracted out, like Parker County, continual psychiatric services are available or in place. That has not been the case locally, though McGuire says at any given time he would guess 30% of his inmates have either a diagnosed, or undiagnosed, mental issue. The certified 142-bed county jail averages around 120 inmates a week.
The initial "Sandra Bland Act" required county jails provide inmates access to continuous mental care by hiring professional staff or providing services through a teleconference link – a costly proposition for counties, especially considering taxpayers are fully responsible for an inmate's medical care.
"We were looking at tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars," McGuire said. "We went a different route."
The Legislature this year eased the requirements to let jails make arrangements with mental health professionals to assess and provide care for inmates. McGuire reached out to Pecan Valley Centers to provide mental health assessment and care services and the two agencies are working out an interlocal agreement that will fulfill the county's statutory obligation while providing inmates access to out-patient care.
"This is not free, but they are local folks," McGuire said.
If there is a similar collaboration in Texas, neither McGuire nor Pecan Valley Centers Executive Director Coke Beatty are aware of it. They are not working from a template but rather creating from scratch a program both hope could become a model for other counties.
"I said, 'Well, let's set a precedent,'" McGuire said. "We are either going to be a big success story or a big flop. Pecan Valley has been a very willing partner with this. They understand what we are up against."
Pecan Valley Centers provide an array of behavioral health care services to those with mental illness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, and can address and treat underlying social issues including alcohol and chemical dependencies. Based in Granbury, it serves a six-county region including Palo Pinto.
"When someone is in jail, the jail is totally responsible for their care," Beatty said. "Mental health is part of medical care. This is a good thing, that we recognize it is the whole person, that you can't separate the mental issues a person has from their physical issues. They are all the same."
While many county officials see the new requirements as yet another unfunded state mandate with uncompensated costs left to be borne by local taxpayers, Beatty said being able to treat inmates has community benefits that could reduce crime, lower recidivism rates and lead to other positive impacts financially and socially.
"In Palo Pinto County Jail we want to be sure we can connect those folks into our outpatient services so that hopefully they don't go back in," Beatty said. "We hope to reduce recidivism."
He said it is not good for someone in need of mental health treatment to sit in jail for months without therapy, or be released back into the community without having that avenue to continue receiving care and services.
"Without treatment, that's a bad plan," he said. "Some people call them frequent flyers. What this will do is help us link with those people. We want to offer our services for those folks as well. We can't make them come and see us."
Pecan Valley Centers' treatment services go beyond mental health and substance abuse care but also works with clients on their housing, employment and other social care needs.
"For years we stepped over a dollar to save a dime," Beatty said. "When we see some cost savings down the road, even though it saves a few dollars today, it is going to cost 10 times that down the road. This is a value-based approach to things."