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Pima County Jail puts emphasis on mental health for inmates

Posted at 9:11 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 16:25:33-05

PIMA CO, AZ — An Arizona county is taking a unique approach to tackle a cycle of recidivism, where inmates get out and most likely commit another crime.

ABC15 went inside Pima County Jail to learn more about a program they say is helping keep communities safe.

“Jails have become unfortunately one of the largest mental health facilities in every county,” said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier.

From those who have committed murders, kidnappings and sexual assaults to those whose crimes stemmed from a mental illness or addiction, the reality is many inmates could soon be back out in communities. Some of them deal with severe mental health issues.

"We had an inmate in here that was trying to eat his own arm a week or so ago," Napier said.

Kathleen Brennan, a sheriff's captain turned clinical psychologist, said corrections officers work closely with mental health support teams. The most at-risk inmates are monitored everyday.

"Often times it's far too extreme for an officer to deal with," Brennan said.

According to Arizona State University, about 40 percent of people released in Arizona get rearrested within three years.

"We see them on kind of a revolving-door basis," Brennan said.

According to Brennan, what many of these inmates need more than punishment is constant care, medication and counseling.

"Aggression is absolutely the last thing you go to," she said.

Studies show that caring approach makes it much less likely people reoffend. It's something Napier, who also has a degree in psychology, confirms is true.

"There's not a single person sitting in third grade, learning their ABCs, saying I wish I could grow up to be a drug addict," he said.

Pima County is also one of the first in the country to bring trained therapy dogs inside jail cells.

"I can't tell you if somebody's walked out of here any better, but I can tell you when they're with the dogs their life is better," said Pima County Corrections Officer John Dickenson.

Specially trained deputies are assigned to check on these former inmates to make sure they're taking their medication and seeing their doctors.

The goal is to catch them before they commit another crime in the community.