McLean County Jail Moves Toward New Mental Health Unit

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — McLean County officials are considering three new housing options for mentally ill jail inmates. Following a report by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC), a county committee is currently reviewing recommendations to expand its jail facilities and provide housing options that are in line with federal standards and regulations.

After two visits to the McLean County Detention Facility (MCDF) within the past year, the NIC delivered three options for expanding housing for mentally ill inmates. Recommendations included renovation of an outdoor recreational area, renovation of the existing west pod and a vertical addition to existing pods originally constructed in the 1990s. The NIC report leaned toward the upward expansion as the best method of adding space and addressing the facility’s growing need to provide safe, appropriate housing areas for mentally ill inmates.

The NIC was first invited to assess the prison’s mental health services by McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery in late 2012. Then, an NIC representative met with jail staff, inmates, local police and community mental health providers, and found the facility housed 215 mentally ill inmates per month on average, up dramatically from 26 per month in 2008. In its subsequent report, the NIC noted that despite the heavy inmate load, the MCDF is “clearly one of the most professionally managed and forward thinking county jails in the nation in the opinion of this Consultant. MCDF contains…an army of competent, compassionate, and dedicated people who seem sincerely invested in the success of the facility and its mission.”

However, the report added that housing mentally ill inmates in single-person booking cells was a violation of their constitutional rights under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Emery countered that these cells are the best option for maintaining the safety of both staff and inmates, especially when custody numbers remain near capacity.

The NIC report also recommended that, although licensed mental health professionals are on site at the jail, officials should consider increasing hours to ensure consistent assessment and care. Mental health training and education should also be expanded on multiple levels, according to the report.

NIC reviewers also pointed to the community’s lack of mental health services as a direct contributor to the jail’s high concentration of mentally ill inmates. To address countywide mental health service deficiencies, the NIC also made several recommendations. Primarily, the report stated that community agencies should work together, developing an integrated network of supportive services and mental health beds throughout the community.

At a December meeting of the county panel developing the new mental health unit, County Administrator Bill Wasson said selecting a planner to complete a detailed needs assessment within the next 60 days was the first step. Conducting the assessment and contracting an architect could take the county up to a year. A construction timeline discussed at the meeting showed the project could take up to three years to finish.