By Noelle Phillips
The isolation cell at the Delta County jail is stark.
Its bright-white walls are padded with a dense rubber so people can’t thrash against a cinder-block wall and harm themselves. There’s a floor drain that serves as a pit toilet, and there’s a bench built into the wall for sitting or sleeping. A fluorescent light shines down, and a video camera records every move. Deputies peek inside every 15 minutes, and inhabitants are stripped of their clothes and given a thick blanket, called a suicide smock, to wear over their bodies.
It is not the ideal place for a someone in the throes of a psychotic episode.
In Colorado, however, cells like the one on the second floor of the Delta County Detention Center are where people suffering a mental health crisis often end up.
“What a terrible place to put a sick person,” Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee said. “Once a week, have someone in there because of a mental health episode. We call it a ‘safe cell’ because you can’t hurt yourself in there.”
The state’s law enforcement officers, particularly those in rural counties, find themselves on the front lines of mental health care. When a family can’t handle a person or when the crisis plays out in a public place such as a school, grocery store or park, law enforcement officers are called.
It’s one more responsibility for rural sheriffs and deputies who already must provide a long list of services mandated by the state, including courthouse security, fire protection and issuance of concealed-carry permits. The work is expensive, and counties still struggling to recover from the recession can be challenged to pay for it. Those same deputies find themselves working long hours, patrolling alone and far from any backup.
On May 1, 2018, a new Colorado law will prohibit the incarceration of people simply because they are in a mental health crisis. And it is largely because sheriffs such as McKee lobbied the Colorado General Assembly to force changes in hopes of bringing some relief.