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Jacksonville Jail Struggles To Provide Mental Health Care; Legislature Mulls Solutions

David Torres

Many Duval County jail inmates live with mental illness, but the county struggles to provide enough mental-health services. That’s why local officials are hoping the state Legislature can help.  

A Jacksonville lawmaker is proposing one solution: Keep more criminals with mental illness from getting locked up in the first place.

Psychiatric nurse Lynnette Kennison remembers a particularly challenging day at the Duval County Pre-Trial Detention Center. That's the main jail in downtown Jacksonville.

“I was given a call that said, ‘You need to go to this cell and take a look. This patient is out of control,'” Kennison said.

She says when she’d get an emergency call like this one, she’d have to first look up the inmate’s records, “which takes a little bit of time because they actually downgraded their electronic medical records to a less efficient service that was less costly.”

Records located, she made her way through several security checkpoints to the cell.

Kennison said, “By the time I got there and I said, ‘I’m the provider. I need to assess this patient,’ they said, ‘No, it’s too late.’”

Kennison says the inmate had a psychotic episode and got into a fight with a corrections officer.

“911 had to be called. And that did not have to happen,” Kennison said. “But it did happen because there was such a shortage of personnel.”

At any moment, between 3,000 and 4,000 people are incarcerated in Duval County jail. The corrections department director estimates at least 10 percent — or about 350 of them — live with severe mental illness and are regularly medicated. Overseeing all of their treatment is a small team led by one psychiatrist — who works part time.

“We lost our full-time psychiatrist—just went on to another opportunity,” said Tara Wildes, the Duval County Department of Corrections Director.

She says there’s a lot of turnover on the psych team.

"We’re on continual recruitment mode, that’s for sure. If you’ll look at the city job page, we’re continuously recruiting for individuals in this field," she said.

Wildes says staffing issues have resulted in the loss of group therapy for inmates. And many are being released with no prescriptions and no referrals to community mental-health providers. Several end up in homeless shelters or back in jail.

Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonvillle) said, “Our jails and prisons have become the main place or repository of persons with mental illness. This doesn’t make any sense."

McBurney is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. His bill, House Bill 7113, is now heading to the House floor. It's just one of the proposed solutions before lawmakers this year.

"I think a lot of us in the Legislature recognize that mental-health issues have become a major problem," McBurney said.

His bill would create a framework for mental-health courts statewide and give county judges more power to recommend conditional release instead of jail. It also creates a three-county pilot diversion program to give those unfit to stand trial a community-based treatment option instead of sending them to state mental hospitals.

The Senate version of the bill has two more committee stops.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP