Kittitas County jail to expand mental health services for inmates

KITTITAS COUNTY, Wash. — The Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office is expanding its mental health program for inmates at the county jail thanks to nearly a half-million-dollar federal grant.

Kittitas County Sheriff’s Inspector Chris Whitsett said with the county short on mental health resources, every law enforcement officer has a story about taking someone into custody, recognizing they have mental health needs and being unable to find them a place where they can get help.

“Those services just don’t exist in the quantity that we need,” Whitsett said. “There aren’t enough beds. There aren’t enough doctors. There’s all kinds of things that are missing.”

Whitsett said while the jail can house up to 200 inmates at a time, they typically have about 100. Jail officials estimate more than half of the inmates need access to mental health services, but there’s only one full-time mental health professional on staff.

However, with a $483,552 grant from the Department of Justice, they’ll be able to expand the program over the next three years. Whitsett said the first step is investing in their current program, including emphasizing the importance of a “warm handoff.”

“We build a relationship with the service providers that are on the outside, so that when somebody steps out of the jail door, we can go here’s your appointment to get services,” Whitsett said.

They’re still in the planning phases, but Whitsett said the grant could help pay for someone to take over the case management aspect of mental health treatment, which would free up their doctor to focus more on the treatment itself.

Whitsett said getting inmates help while they’re in the jail is important to break whatever cycle they’re in and may require treatment for mental health, substance abuse issues or a combination of both. He said helping them makes them better able to deal with life outside the jail and hopefully, makes both them and their community safer.

“People are in jail for reasons and they have to be there for the safety of our community, because our laws and judges have determined that’s what has to happen, but it’s not our job to punish,” Whitsett said. “It’s our job to care for people and keep them safe while they’re doing what the law says they have to do, so we’re trying to do that in the in the right way for our whole community.”

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