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Pitkin County inmates struggling with mental health and substance abuse

Pitkin County
The Garfield County jail in Glenwood Springs is about an hour from Aspen. People arrested in Pitkin County are sent to the Garfield County jail until the sheriff's department is able to reopen or build a new facility.

The Pitkin County Jail was deemed unsafe to house inmates in 2020.

Since then, incarcerated people have been sent to the Garfield County Jail, nearly an hour away.

A jail consultancy firm, Justice Planners, located in South Carolina, was hired by Pitkin County to assess the needs of inmates and to suggest designs for a new facility.

In a work session with Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday, the firm said additional mental health services are recommended before the county reopens its facility.

Patrick Jablonski, a statistician with Justice Planners, said mental health support for inmates should be a top priority.

“It was one of the constant themes of all of our conversations with stakeholders with community members,” said Jablonski. “[They said] that mental health and substance abuse was the most significant problem facing the criminal justice system, if not the community as a whole.”

After assessing arrests in Pitkin County between 2015 and 2021, the firm reported that almost 70% of inmates are struggling with serious mental health problems, substance abuse or both.

Jablonski added that law enforcement officers in the county don’t have many options when arresting people who need mental health support.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo confirmed that issue.

“Sometimes we divert that by letting people out on a PR bond so they can get to a mental health hospital,” said DiSalvo, referring to a personal recognizance bond. “But those are few and far between. If you have a criminal charge, you’re probably not getting into one of these hospitals.”

When Commissioner Francie Jacober questioned why the hospitals won’t accept patients who have committed crimes, DiSalvo said they are “not equipped, not licensed, not prepared.”

DiSalvo adds he hopes Pitkin County can find another option.

“I don’t think that’s a compassionate way to deal with somebody who is mentally ill who has committed a crime,” DiSalvo said. “I would like there to be a way to segregate them from the rest of the population in more of a therapeutic environment. But under the current layout of most jails in the United States, I just don’t think it’s a good way to treat sick people.”

Alan Richardson, president of Justice Planners, suggested that the county provide private rooms and beds specifically to support people in mental health crises.

“This should be run as more of a therapeutic environment,” said Richardson. “Not as a hard-core jail. This should be much more of a patient-counselor-type space.”

He added that current projections show the county would need to provide 23 beds in 2025 for people struggling with mental health issues.

DiSalvo said the county and the sheriff’s office still have a lot of data to collect before presenting any plans.

“We’re just starting — the first step in a thousand miles,” said DiSalvo. “We are crawling. I don’t even think we’re crawling. We’re embryonic.”

There’s a long way to go before Pitkin County can house its inmates locally again.

Commissioner Patti Clapper thinks Pitkin County can’t address the mental health needs of inmates without regional support.

“We have no public-safety funding source to really do this,” said Clapper. “We don’t have any staffing available. We already know that from our shortages at our mental health facilities. We have no housing here to house people who can service our mental health issues — our drug and alcohol detox rehabilitation services. I think this information will help us further that regional position.”

DiSalvo said the sheriff’s office will wait for further direction from the commissioners.