Summit County jail adds mental health navigator to help inmates transition to life after incarceration |

Summit County jail adds mental health navigator to help inmates transition to life after incarceration

Lt. Sylvia Simms is the new mental health navigator at the Summit County Detentions Facility.
Sawyer D’Argonne /

BRECKENRIDGE — Summit County officials are hopeful that recent changes at the Summit County Detention Facility will help to reduce rates of recidivism among incarcerated individuals dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Last week, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office introduced a new mental health navigator position at the jail, a move meant to ensure individuals receive the proper care for their mental health and addiction issues, both in custody and after their release.

“The goal is to have less recidivism in the jail,” said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who made the addition of the navigator position a key point in his campaign last year. “We want fewer people coming into the jail that have committed a crime because they’re in crisis, or because they have a substance use disorder, and they’ve committed a crime to maintain their substance use. … I think we will see a big community impact.”

FitzSimons said Summit County is part of a program called Jail Based Behavioral Health Services, which is offered through the Colorado Department of Human Services Office of Behavioral Health, and a recipient of the Catchment Grant in partnership with other Western Slope communities. The program, meant to help fund behavioral health services to inmates, previously allowed only those who screened positive for substance abuse issues to take part in the services. But the program recently underwent an extension, allowing individuals to be screened for and use services related to substance use disorders, mental health issues and suicide prevention.

As part of the expansion, the detention center created the mental health navigator position, promoting Lt. Sylvia Simms to the roll to serve as a linchpin of the jail’s behavioral health services.

“My job is to build paths for all inmates that have substance use disorders and mental health illnesses to provide them with services in detention and continue their services when they’re eventually released,” Simms said. “A lot of them are really open to help. They know sitting and wasting their lives in jail is not the way to go. There are a lot of individuals who are very excited about this, including myself.”

People in custody have the choice to be screened for entry into the program while being booked into the jail. Individuals who trigger a response for mental health issues or substance use disorders will then get one-on-one meetings with Simms, and the jail’s on-site nurse in some cases, to determine what needs they might have while detained, such as psychiatric medication, medical detoxification, behavioral therapy and more.

Once the individual is set to be released, Simms will work with outside partners — a network including Building Hope, the Family and Intercultural Resource Center, the Summit Community Care Clinic, the District Attorney’s Office and more — to help set them up for success after leaving the jail.

Simms said that on top of helping to arrange things like therapy sessions, she’ll help to make sure individuals have the necessary resources in line before leaving. Those resources could include working with community partners to help set up transportation and temporary housing, helping to fill out applications for driver’s licenses and necessary documentation for employment, and working to get the individual on insurance or Medicaid so they can continue their treatment, among other services.

FitzSimons noted that the network of community partners being built around the navigator position also would improve communication between behavioral health stakeholders in the community and the jail, allowing for legal memorandums of understanding so the groups can share sensitive information.

“Where we’ve lost people before is they’re on the outside, on medication and seeing a therapist. And for whatever myriad of reasons, they go off their meds, start self-medicating and drop off the radar of their mental health provider,” FitzSimons said. “Now, they commit some petty crime because they’re in crisis and end up in jail. They think you’ve just failed to show up for your appointment, and what they don’t know is you’re sitting in our jail in crisis.

“There’s no connection. What this position does is provides that connection. … Now we’re able to reach out to providers who can say, ‘Here are the kind of services they were getting while they were seeing them; here are the medications.’”

As part of the program, the jail will be required to send monthly and quarterly reports to the Office of Behavioral Health, but at the detention center, success will be measured by how effectively they’re able to reduce the number of individuals making repeat appearances.

“When the same people stop coming into detention, that would be success,” Simms said. “When they can hold a job, hold housing, get help with their addiction or their mental health illness. By the end of the year, we should have a good program with a productive group of people able to help those individuals.”

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