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Jail director says people wait for months for a bed at Lincoln Regional Center

September 9, 2018

People with serious mental illness sit in the Lancaster County jail for months — an average 69 days last winter, 73 days in May — waiting for a bed at the Lincoln Regional Center.

The jail has had inmates who do not understand where they are, who think the staff is pumping gas into their cell or placing poison in their food or trying to kill them in some other way, said Brad Johnson, Lancaster County jail director.

“It is my strong belief that these detainees should not be housed in a correctional facility any longer than necessary. The current waiting period is very unreasonable,” Johnson told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The committee, at the request of Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, is looking at the lack of mental health treatment for those in the criminal justice system while the Legislature is on break.

But Lancaster County isn’t the only county affected by the shortage of beds at the state psychiatric hospital and the shortage of community-based programs.

Across the state, people are being held in jail awaiting space after a judge has ordered they must undergo treatment so they can understand and help with their defense.

Under state law, that treatment must take place at the Lincoln Regional Center.

In Omaha, people with serious mental illness sat in jail an average of 59 days last year before they could get a bed at the Regional Center for competency restoration, said Capt. Colene Hinchey with the Omaha Police Department.

One man is so delusional he started stalking a woman because he feared for his life. And while he is a threat to her, he has not done something so egregious as to be locked in jail for a long time. But he remains in jail because there is not yet room for him at the Regional Center, Hinchey told senators.

Currently there are 48 people in Omaha who need to get into the Regional Center. Forty-two of those people are in jail on court orders they be restored to sanity; the other six have been committed by the mental health board.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

Dawson County dealt with six people last year with serious mental illness who waited an average three to four months to get into the Regional Center for competency restoration, said Sgt. Keith Williamson, with the Dawson County Sheriff’s office.

The most severely ill must be held in two isolation cells, normally used for inmates who have broken rules, said Williamson. There is no access to TV. The cells are so small there is no way to exercise. And some people cannot be taken to other areas for exercise because they are combative with staff.

“Jails are not, by their structure, built to deal with someone with severe mental issues. So we are housing these people and trying to keep them safe, sometimes from themselves and sometimes from other inmates,” he said.

“Sometimes they are not able to understand even why they are there,” he added.

And the cost of caring for people with serious mental illnesses is high, said Johnson.

He has estimated it costs about $172 a day for care in the jail’s infirmary. Care in the specialty units, which requires additional staff, costs between $75 to $91 a day.

Senators on the Judiciary Committee saw different solutions to the jail problem.

The state needs to re-establish mental health hospitals, said Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings.

If he were emperor for a day, Halloran said he would take $100 million from other state agencies to use for re-establishing mental health hospitals that were closed more than a decade ago.

“We should be treating people instead of having them end up in prison, where they are beat up, bullied and sometimes killed,” he said.

But other senators said there was a need for more beds at the state psychiatric hospital and for more money for community programs that would help keep people stable after they are released from the Regional Center.

When the state reduced the number of regional center beds, that money went to local community programs. But those funds “have been cut and cut and cut,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

“We’ve done this to ourselves. We’ve heard providers come to hearings saying they need more money and everyone throws their hands in the air.”

The lack of regional center beds has trickled down to counties, said Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete. “We don’t necessarily want to put people in hospitals forever,” she said. “So there is still a place for well-funded, community-based care, perhaps some group homes.”

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