Brown County Browser: Mental health issues in jail populations

The duties of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office include not only enforcing laws and arresting offenders, but also providing the services of the county jail. Our correctional officers work diligently to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates, but are facing the serious growing prevalence of mental illness amongst the jail population.

In the 1970’s, there was a movement across Minnesota to close the state run hospitals and pursue a more community-based approach for treatment. This left only two highly secured hospitals, Anoka and St. Peter, to handle the population of mentally ill offenders. A current state law gives priority to the Anoka-metro inmates, but limits the ability to serve greater Minnesota inmates.

Last year alone, Brown County Officers responded to 118 calls that came into the office as attempted suicides, drug overdoses, or welfare checks on mentally unstable people. Once the officers have contact with these individuals, they become responsible for their well-being. Although New Ulm does have a psychiatric unit at the New Ulm Medical Center, it is constantly overflowing or on deferred status. Many facilities will not take a potential patient if they are in any way aggressive. This lack of patient beds has led to individuals being placed in the Brown County jail simply because there is no other safe alternative.

This situation is negative for all involved. The inmate’s behavior often escalates in an environment that is not therapeutic. The correctional staff is severely limited in their response to out-of-control and violent inmates. The only resources available to them are a restraint chair or a holding cell. The Brown County board is recently considering the conversion of two jail cells into “safety cells”. These cells will be completely padded and under surveillance at all times.

My staff has dealt with many situations that continue to divert their time and attention from the greater population in order to deal with an inmate in crisis. There have been incidents where staff have been assaulted, with one officer remaining on limited duty as a result of his injuries.

Thankfully, the state Legislature is working on a bonding bill to bring back some much needed mental health resources. Also, the Minnesota State Sheriff’s Association is pursuing legal action against the Minnesota Department of Human Services. They have documented at least 60 cases since 2015 where DHS has failed to comply with the state law that requires an inmate to be transferred to a state psychiatric facility within 48 hours after being court committed by a judge.

There is hope that with the increasing visibility of this crisis, a solution will soon be in the works, one that will benefit all involved. Our goal is to provide a safe community and treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Be Safe.


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