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Breaking Down Bars: What Mental Health Services Look Like At The Doña Ana County Detention Center

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Doña Ana County Detention Center
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Within a remodeled block of the Doña Ana County Detention Center, Jason Duran and his team of mental health specialists are working to serve the 71% of inmates in need of care. 

“Many of our patients haven't received any care until they come here with us,” Duran said. “That is why it's our mission to continue to provide the same level of care that anyone would receive.”

45% of the individuals under the care of Duran’s team of nine rely on a combination of medication and counseling—the other 55% solely utilize counseling services. According to Corizon Health, the organization contracted through the county to provide mental health care, no individual is receiving medication for mental health needs without some form of counseling.  

The high number of individuals in need of mental health care while incarcerated is a trend seen across the United States. According to aU.S. Department of Justice report, 44% of inmates within jails had some type of previously diagnosed mental health disorder, higher than the 37% seen in state and federal prisons. 

Duran highlighted a trend of individuals under his care who have experienced large amounts of physical and emotional trauma. 

“We see individuals with serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia,” Duran said. “And a lot of our patients also do have a substance abuse disorder. I think that one factor that cuts across virtually all detained individuals is exposure to trauma. So regardless of a patient's diagnosis, their current experience is expressed through the traumas that they've experienced.”

Corizon Health CEO Sara Tirschwell says the most challenging part of treating individuals within systems like the Doña Ana County Detention Center is that their mental health needs have largely been ignored prior to incarceration.   

“Why has a county jail in New Mexico become basically a de facto mental hospital? Why?” Tirschwell said. “Because we, at some point, decided that we were not going to provide a safety net for people and give them the mental health treatment that they need.”

Duran says his team sees a lot of previous patients return to the detention center, despite efforts to connect individuals with resources.  

Micah Pearson, the Executive Director of the Southern New Mexico Branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is working with Doña Ana County to find solutions. In a longer conversation about mental health, Pearson told KRWG, NAMI Southern New Mexico is in the last stages of negotiation with the county to provide peer navigation services. 

“My favorite program that we are working with the county to implement is peer navigation services, which is independent from any particular behavioral health provider, a team of folks who will go meet a client where they're at and do a needs assessment,”  Pearson said.  "We watch this person, we make sure they get from point A to point B. We see everything that's happening."

While there aren’t enough resources at the county level to fund Pearson’s entire proposal, he says the next step is looking for other funding sources. 

“Everybody says we need a thing, but nobody wants to pay for it. And the county actually really does want to pay for it,” Pearson said. “They just don't have those funds. But like, that's the thing. Everybody says it's important. Nobody really wants to put their name on the checkbook. And partly because that requires rethinking the system. And in some cases, you are taking money out of some budgets to put it into another."

Pearson notes that the city of Las Cruces could be one potential funding source, but that conversations still need to occur.  

And NAMI Southern New Mexico isn’t the only entity working to enact change. Corizon Health says theyare advocating this year to expand their Release With Care initiative nationwide. CEO of Corizon Health Sara Tirschwell says Doña Ana County is one of the areas they are seeking to expand the current program. 

“What that initiative does is for addicted individuals, we give them a five day supply of medication,”  Tirschwell said “Because when somebody leaves a correction setting they're not necessarily going to figure out everything that they need to figure out by the time they actually need that medication.” 

Above all, those like Duran, who work at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, want the community to understand that while big change is needed to provide better mental health treatment nationwide–it’s the small victories that mean the most to staff. 

“What drives me is knowing that the work that we do within the detention center does help to improve lives,” Duran said. “And it helps to improve those individuals that other folks might forget about. When we have our small victories, it means a lot, because little small victories, over time, add up to huge accomplishments.”

Madison Staten is a Multimedia Reporter for KRWG Public Media. You can hear her stories on KRWG-FM and watch on KRWG-TV's Newsmakers.