Dressed in all brown, three men fill their coffee cups, take a seat on the couch and talk about life. It’s more relaxed here than in other places of the facility, with flowers and inspirational quotes spread across the walls. And if it weren’t for the jumpsuits and cell doors, one might forget that this is actually a county jail.
On Thursday, November 12, 2020, the Humboldt County Correctional Facility (HHCF) and Wellpath held a ribbon cutting for the county’s newest initiative to address mental illness within the justice system, a Jail-Based Competency Treatment (JBCT) Program for offenders deemed incompetent to stand trial.
“A couple of years ago, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and the Correctional Facility had 20 people who were deemed incompetent to stand trial that were waiting for a place in the state hospital system to go and restore competency,” Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said. “We had these people languishing in our county jail for up to six months before they could get a space in the state hospital.”
Seeing the overwhelming need for change, Sheriff Honsal brought together representatives from the County’s Department of Health and Human Services and the Correctional Facility in order to brainstorm solutions. The result, a petition to the California Department of State Hospitals for a Jail-Based Competency Treatment Program in Humboldt County.
The HCCF Jail-Based Competency Treatment (JBCT) Program is a satellite state hospital, paid for by the State of California, within the Correctional Facility. The program currently can facilitate six patients, who live within the JBCT unit of the facility and spend their days working with counselors and psychologists in order to restore competency.
Donna Bullard, the program director and clinician for the HCCF JBCT Program, says the treatment is intensive and tailored to the individual. “I spend a lot of time with them each day. We do group therapy twice a day, they see a psychiatrist once a week and they meet with me one-on-one every week. So, we really get to know them.”
A Different Setting
While the unit is housed within the Correctional Facility, it is in stark contrast of what you may see in any other dorm.
“A typical dorm, the inmates are in quads where they sleep in bunks very close to each other. Our [JBCT] inmates have their own cells that were completely remodeled,” said Lauren Elkin, the Correctional Deputy overseeing the JBCT unit. “We remodeled the unit to paint it more calming colors. Instead of your typical plastic chairs, they have couches with pillows. We have music, flowers on the wall and just try to make it seem like a therapeutic environment versus a traditional custodial environment.”
Facility staff have worked hard to make the unit feel more comfortable, with hopes of alleviating some of the mental stress of living in a jail environment, creating a space that is conducive to effective therapy. Deputy Elkin, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, has played a significant role in helping to create the space and carrying out it’s mission. Elkin works with the patients daily, assisting clinicians with their work and helping patients work toward wellness.
“It’s just really inspiring that we are able to work with our Sheriff partners and really transform the jails into a treatment environment for people who need us,” said Emily Mann, JBCT Regional Specialist for Wellpath. “This program does the right thing for all of the people involved and it works. The outcomes are there, we have the data. The program is successful in every county that we have.”
And the patients agree. During Thursday’s ribbon cutting one patient in the program, whose name is being kept confidential for privacy purposes, said, “without JBCT I would be completely lost in the justice system and I have no idea where I’d be at this moment.”
Hope and Healing
While restoring competency may sound clinical, it’s about a lot more that. “At Wellpath, our call to action is to hope and healing,” Justin Searle, Executive Vice President of Wellpath said. “I can’t think of a better embodiment of hope and healing than these programs.”
Clinician Bullard says though the ribbon cutting was held this week, the program has actually been open just over two months. During that time, the program has restored almost six patients to competency.
“Generally, it takes two months or longer just for them to get on a waiting list for a state hospital,” Bullard said. “So being able to treat them in house and have them restored is really rewarding. This represents hope that things can get better. You can treat people who are mentally ill and incarcerated effectively.”
Not only is this a win for the patients to be able to get treatment fast, Sheriff Honsal says it’s a win for the North Coast as the JBCT unit has the ability to accept patients from neighboring Del Norte county should space become available. Sheriff Honsal says the unit has the ability to expand if needed and approved by the state. For now, Sheriff Honsal says, it’s a “start” and stressed the importance of more mental health resources needed for Humboldt County.
“We struggle to find resources to steer people to and our whole social services system is overwhelmed. They need more help. They need more support.” Sheriff Honsal said. “So, this is just one way we can help out with the issue of mental illness in our community.”
Sheriff Honsal says in addition to the JBCT Program the facility will continue working with Wellpath and Humboldt County Behavioral Health to address mental illness and provide more mental health services for all inmates.