It's taken the deaths of 11 inmates in five years, as well as several lawsuits, but the El Paso County Board of Commissioners finally agreed last week to increase mental-health staffing at the county jail.
At the request of the Sheriff's Office, commissioners added $149,000 to the contract held by Correctional Healthcare Management Inc., which provides the jail's health-care services. The addition will double the number of full-time mental-health assistants in the jail, from two to four, and will also pay for increased psychiatrist services.
The staff increase was recommended last September by a citizens' panel appointed by then-Sheriff John Anderson to examine deaths in the jail.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, called the move a "significant first step" in reducing inmate deaths, but said it should have come sooner.
"The addition of mental-health staff was long overdue," Silverstein said.
The ACLU has sought to focus attention on deaths in the jail since 1998, when inmate Michael Lewis died after being strapped flat on the floor on a restraint board. Since then, jailers have discontinued the use of the controversial board.
Noting that many of the dead inmates had serious mental-health problems, the ACLU demanded 17 months ago that the county investigate whether it was providing adequate mental-health services in the jail.
The Board of Commissioners initially rejected the demand. Since then, two more inmates have died. Douglas S. Parrish, who had been arrested for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges, died on June 13 last year, and Marca Anne Wilson, 48, accused of arson, died Feb. 18 of this year. Both hanged themselves with bedsheets.
A year ago, the ACLU and the Washington-based National Prison Project filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the county, claiming it was failing to protect inmates with mental-health problems. The suit is still pending.
The families of several dead inmates have also sued the county. Just last month, the parents of Brian R. Bennett, 22, who hanged himself in the jail in 2001, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit asking for $10 million in damages. Bennett, who according to his parents has bipolar disorder, was accused of having stolen a bicycle.
The county has paid more than $150,000 to settle previous lawsuits over inmate deaths.
The advisory panel appointed by the sheriff last year noted in its report that jails in similar-sized Colorado counties had ratios of mental-health staff to inmates ranging between 1-to-79 and 1-to-200. The El Paso County jail's ratio, in comparison, was 1-to-443.
The citizens' panel also reported that while the El Paso County jail had one jail suicide and 14 attempts in the first nine months of 2002, the Arapahoe County jail had one suicide and five attempts, and the Jefferson County had no suicides and four attempts.
The increase in mental health staff that was approved last Thursday still leaves the El Paso County jail short of matching the other counties' staffing levels. With four mental-health assistants and 1,109 inmates at last count, the jail's new ratio will be approximately 1 to 277.
The Sheriff's Office issued a response to the panel's report last fall in which it agreed with the panel's recommendation to increase staffing and provide continuous mental-health training for deputies.
Lt. Melissa Hartman, the department's spokeswoman, said the reason the staff increase didn't happen immediately upon the panel's recommendation was that funds weren't available in the county's budget until now.
"This was our first request opportunity," Hartman said.
Asked whether the increase will be sufficient, Hartman said, "We will evaluate the addition over the next year to determine if [the mental-health] needs of the detention population are being met."