Summit Daily (Colorado)
By Hugh Carey
When John told a crisis hotline counselor that he was suicidal last September, he didn’t expect the police to get involved. But roughly two hours later, he says, sheriff’s deputies arrived at his home in Summit Cove.
John, who asked his real name be withheld, had been drinking heavily and fallen asleep after making the call. A roommate woke him up, and he went outside to meet the deputies, who later reported that John refused to go to detox.
So instead, he was taken to jail. There, staff asked him to strip off his clothes and don a “suicide smock” — a garment made of tear-resistant material that can’t be used as a noose — and placed him in a small padded cell.
There was no toilet, just a rectangular hole in the floor covered by a metal grate. Every 15 minutes, a jail deputy checked to make sure he was still alive.
“It was pretty miserable, I was just walking around in the cell kind of losing my mind,” he recalled. Twelve to 14 hours later, he said, a staffer for mental health care provider Mind Springs Health cleared him to be released from the beige and scuff-marked enclosure.
In Summit County, the average number of hours people spend in jail holds has skyrocketed from 44 hours in 2014 to 651 last year, a 1,365 percent increase that mirrors similar spikes in counties across the state. This year, the number is on pace to reach 1,177.
It’s unclear how many of the people locked up were charged with a crime. And according to three experts and law enforcement officials, police sometimes charge dangerous patients with minor offenses to get them in a cell rather than wait for space in a medical facility to open up.
Whether or not patients are charged, the practice effectively criminalizes mental illness, and there is a consensus among the county sheriff, lawmakers and care providers that it is inhumane, ineffective and expensive.
This year, the Legislature passed a law that will end mental health lockups for non-criminal patients by May 1, 2018. It also allocated $7 million in marijuana tax revenues to expand crisis care services, including a six-bed crisis stabilization unit somewhere on the Western Slope.