First to address the commission was Cheaha Mental Health Board member Mavis Newman, who asked that a mental health unit be included in the plans for the expansion of the county detention facility.
“It would be easier access for the therapists and nurses from Cheaha Mental Health Center if there was a specific area where they could see the inmates with mental health issues,” Newman said. “While this is relatively new, as in the last 10 years or so, the jails with mental health units have been mostly happy because it takes a lot of the disturbances away from other inmates. What I have modeled my ideas on are jails in such places as Virginia and Texas, but I can gather information on more jails for you.”
CMHC Board members agree the jail does an excellent job of calling in therapists when needed, keeping a nurse on hand and getting medications to inmates while monitoring their doses.
Commission Chairman Kelvin Cunningham asked what the issues and protocol might be if an inmate exhibiting mental health issues were brought in late at night, although there were no representatives from the sheriff’s office at the meeting.
Sylacauga Police Chief Louis Zook said the jail has coordinated with CMHC to have the nurse provide services and evaluations if an inmate is brought in after hours. Follow-up with Cheaha can be scheduled if needed after the nurse has done evaluations and given initial doses of medication. He said he thought being able to separate mentally ill patients from the general population would be a great help in providing services all around.
Cunningham also hoped it might be feasible to provide basic training for correctional officers so they might better be able to deal with patients exhibiting signs of mental illness.
Commissioner Jimmy Roberson said he would also like to have at least the mayors, council members and police chiefs from the county’s larger municipalities as well as the sheriff included in the planning of the jail to make sure it serves all of the county’s needs.
“I emphasized that I am not asking you to move the inmates to be convenient for the therapists,” Newman said. “I just think an area within the jail separated for those who have been identified or are suspected of having mental issues would be better. I understand it is a security issue to move inmates.”
Zook then asked the commissioners to give an overview of how the funding for the expansion would work, and said he was in favor of expanding the jail.
Cunningham said Recovery Zone economic development bonds were available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to provide $6,535,000 with 45 percent reimbursement. The deadline for applying for those funds is Friday, but additional funds may also become available if other counties do not take advantage of the bonds. The commission would know if it received additional funds by late summer.
The county is also planning to use funds from court fees and additional tax fees previously established for other jail construction.
Roberson said not meeting the deadline would make the county appear to be turning down money when budgets in recent years have been tight. He also stressed that the county was trying to avoid building something that would be overcrowded within five years, as has happened in the recent past.
Cunningham commended the staff for being able to feed and care for the inmates in the current conditions, saying he hoped the expansion would bring them some relief.
Roberson said the county has been fortunate that it has avoided layoffs, been able to award raises and take on the additional expenses of employee insurance. He said he hoped the $1 million spent annually on inmate health care was partly due to overcrowding, and could be reduced with the expansion.
“I hate to say it, but this will be the largest bond issue in the history of Talladega County if we come to an agreement,” Roberson said. “Our correctional officers today are not in a good situation. We wanted to make sure before we started the bond process that we had more than one bond payment worth of funds in the bank.”