Officials: New Douglas Co. mental health facility will positively impact county jail population

WOWT 6 News 10 p.m. Sunday newscast
Published: Mar. 19, 2023 at 9:56 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The new mental health facility that has been in the works in Douglas County for several months, is getting closer to more definitive plans.

Next month, county commissioners are expected to see results from feasibility studies to help determine the type of facility the county builds.

Douglas County’s Director of Corrections says the facility will greatly impact the work they do at the jail.

Of the nearly 1,100 inmates in the jail...

“Recently around 40% or more of our population is diagnosed with a mental illness, and about half of those around 20% are typically diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder,” says Michael Myers, the corrections director.

Myers says working with this population isn’t easy, especially in the building they’re currently housed in.

“We don’t have any facilities that were built intentionally for housing and treating individuals with mental illness,” he says. “The most recent construction of the jail was completed nearly 20 years ago and about half of that now is occupied by individuals with varying degrees of severity of mental illness, so it has become a very significant part of what we do every day.”

That’s one of the reasons why the Douglas County board is using $55 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to build a new mental health facility that will accommodate the community as well as the jail population.

Right now, the community’s mental health services are provided on just one floor at the county’s health center.

“We keep continuing to see the increase in need and rising numbers that we are serving in both those areas,” says County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson about both departments.

Borgeson says a new facility will allow the departments to continue their work together.

“They do programming and services together already, and we were thinking that if we could really combine them, build them closer, have them more close in proximity, we would even be able to do more collaboration with each other,” she says.

“We operate with the Douglas County community mental health center to a pretty extensive degree,” Myers adds. “We have a lot of programs that begin while people are in custody and extend out so they can get services in a seamless continuum of care, post-release.”

Myers says when conversations about a facility were first beginning, it brought a sense of hope and relief.

“It is very exciting, I mean, this has been a need that’s ever increasing, we have tried to develop - we have developed - many, many programs and interventions but it still sometimes has seemed that we’re continuing to swim upstream.”

Feasibility studies are being done on two options for building a new facility.

The first option is building one co-located facility that accommodates both inmates and community members. The building would be on or near the jail’s current campus.

The second option is building two separate facilities: one being an addition to the north side of the jail, and the other being the community facility, with the possibility of it being built where the Trailways bus station currently sits.

No matter which option they choose, Myers says it will have many positive impacts.

“Right now, we have no spaces for mental health professionals to sit in a safe place that’s also private and to be used for therapeutic services,” Myers says. “Oftentimes, our mental health providers have to do their interventions with folks incarcerated, often happen talking through a window on a locked door.”

“A new facility with safe, secure, and separate space for inmates with mental illness would be good for both staff and inmates, Myers adds.

“Being able to have that resource, first and foremost, it will enable us to treat and care for the individuals in our custody who have those illnesses more effectively and therapeutically, but it will also take a tremendous amount of stress off our existing facility and our staff, who kind of have to pigeonhole treatment into a facility that wasn’t built for it.”

And with fewer resources and space being dedicated to those with mental illnesses within the jail, Myers adds that it will also better serve the inmates who aren’t struggling with mental health issues.