Summit County Jail hopes to change culture around mental health and medical issues
July 31, 2018
When David Bertling arrived in Breckenridge this January to take over operations of the county jail, he was faced with a radically different environment than he was used to.
In Texas, where he worked as a captain for the Williamson County Sheriff's Office, he was accustomed to a massive detention center with more than 850 inmates, including murderers and cartel members. Walking through the narrow halls of the Summit County Jail, which hosts no more than 95 inmates at any given time, the differences were clear immediately: a lower volume of crimes, a smaller facility, smaller staff and less violent criminals. But something else stood out to Bertling in those early days on the job. He noticed that most of the problems that a major jail struggles with, smaller jails struggle with as well.
"Its weird because this jail is almost right at 10 percent of what I was dealing with in Texas," said Bertling, commander of detentions and court security for the county. "But the problem issues we deal with are identical. In the field of detentions we're all trying to handle the same things."
Bertling, along with Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, has been working on a number of jail improvements over recent months to address perceived shortcomings in the jail's services and abilities, especially as they relate to inmate health and mental health, two issues that have plagued the facility in the past.
“It was a perfect nexus and you can see why it was so important for me to make those changes immediately.”
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The jail's missteps have been well documented over recent years. A Leadville man died of an alcohol withdrawal induced heart attack after three days in custody in 2013, spurring a $3.5 million settlement to his family last year. A 31-year-old woman also died in the hospital in 2016 after trying to hang herself with a bed sheet in her cell. Her family brought a lawsuit against the sheriff's office earlier this year, claiming jail staff showed "deliberate indifference" to her suicidal symptoms.
The hope is that those tragic deaths will serve as a springboard into more comprehensive health and mental health care in custody under the current administration.
"Those incidents were absolutely contributing factors for us wanting to change the way we do business," said FitzSimons, who was named interim sheriff shortly after the 2016 incident and was subsequently elected. "If you look at those lawsuits, they're surrounding detox and mental health issues. It was a perfect nexus and you can see why it was so important for me to make those changes immediately."
Steps have subsequently been taken to help address these issues. In 2016, a nurse was contracted on site, as well as an on-call doctor to assist with any medical issues. A new surveillance system was put into place throughout the jail to better help protect both deputies and inmates. One of Bertling's first actions he took was to get rid of traditional bed sheets in cells.
But for FitzSimons and Bertling, the name of the game ultimately is changing the culture surrounding health and mental health issues by creating a system of accountability, critical thinking and the empowering of staff at every level to be able to identify potential issues and to take the necessary action.
"I think when those things happened five or more years ago, the mindset was that the mental health professionals do their thing, and we do ours," said Bertling. "But we've come to the realization that we need to come together. We want to address those issues as early as possible when an inmate comes in. And the continuation of care continues from there with a daily process of assessing where the person is mentally or medically. That's where the learning curve takes over, learning from mental health experts and nurses and creating a collaborative relationship."
While both Bertling and FitzSimons have lauded the improved relationship between the sheriff's office and mental health organizations such as Mind Springs Health over recent months, mental health issues continue to persist. At any given time, at least 60 percent of the inmates at the jail have a history of mental illness, are currently being treated for mental illness or are in crisis. Deputies are working to get better at dealing with mental health cases. FitzSimons says that all of his deputies have been trained in crisis intervention training, and jail employees are close behind, according to Bertling.
"It hovers at over half of our population," said FitzSimons. "It's extremely difficult to deal with, but that's why it's so important to teach staff how to talk with people, how to recognize people in crisis, and immediately know how to reach out for help…our philosophy is to empower staff at the lowest level. Teach people to problem solve and think outside the box, empower people and stand behind them. And if you trained them right they're going to make the right decisions."
"Our staff doesn't have to be mental health experts," added Bertling. "They just need to be able to see signs, and keep them safe until a mental health professional comes in."
Aside from a hegemonic shift in how the jail deals with medical and mental health issues, there are also several other potential improvements to the jail in the works.
This week the jail is installing a cutting-edge video system wherein inmates can telecommunicate with judges for their advisements without having to leave the jail, freeing up deputies who would have otherwise had to escort them to the courtroom, thereby maintaining max security at the facility.
"I saw a need for greater security and this is just one of those tools that allows us to keep our staff here," said Bertling. "The more officers I have moving around means less opportunity for inmates to harm themselves or others."
Bertling also had the natural windows within the jail uncovered to let more light into the facility and holding pods, hoping the move will improve inmate morale.
"I have noticed since we brightened it up, there has been a positive impact in the moods of the inmates down there," said Bertling. "When they can go to the recreation yard, or get some natural light it really helps."
Another issue is that there is currently only one female pod in the entire jail. So if a woman is dealing with mental health or medical issues and needs to be separated from the general population, there's nowhere to put her without a special needs cell.
"There are some things that could be done structurally to this facility that would make it more functional for another 10 or 20 years," said Bertling. "As we are, we're really limited in the scope of being able to separate people with special needs."