Reducing mentally ill in county prison not a ‘quick fix’

Reducing the mentally ill population in the Lycoming County Prison will not be a “quick fix” but comes down to identifying and sharing data, according to prison officials.

“The county is committed to diverting the mentally ill from the county prison,” said Chris Ebner, deputy warden of the prison and coordinator for the county Stepping Up initiative.

Sharing information, collecting data and determining the difference between inmates suffering from mental illness versus those affected by drugs are key elements to the initiative.

Building data also will “drive future dollars,” he said. Future dollars may go toward hiring more staff to deal with the mentally ill population.

“What collecting all this data will do is fill in the gaps to help identify who these people are,” Ebner said.

The county has dedicated time and personnel to training and data collection over the past two years, but Ebner said the process is just getting started, adding that there are no real templates to draw from.

“This is going to go on for years,” Ebner said. “I’m going to be retired before we get the real fruits of the labor.”

Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the prison population suffers from some type of mental illness, ranging from basic care to a serious issue.

However, identifying the difference between a mentally ill inmate and an inmate dealing with a drug addiction is important to reduce skewed numbers, Ebner said. Currently, mental health statistics are built through self-reporting, which relies on the inmates being honest about their own health conditions.

Ebner said the prison must take this information on face-value as there are not enough personnel to fact check each person’s file.

Building a network of shared data between other departments and organizations like the prison, Clinton County Prison, West Branch Drug and Alcohol, and the county Adult Probation Office will help the county prison see verified mental health history on each inmate, Ebner said.

“Instead of having individual silos, we’ll be able to all talk someday to help serve the entire population,” he said.

The efforts of today will create a better system for the “next generation,” Ebner said.

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