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Bay Area jail rejects traditional methods of dealing with mentally ill inmates

New mental stabilization unit makes major changes
Posted at 2:49 PM, Aug 30, 2018

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — There's a major shake-up in how Tampa Bay's biggest jail treats mentally ill inmates. Staff at Falkenburg Road Jail vow the big changes will help prevent inmates from reoffending.

Frank Chapman has been in and out of Falkenburg Road Jail for much of his life. Chapman is charged with arson and murder after a fire at Oakhill Villages Mobile Home Park that left a man dead in 2013.

“It’s somewhat unbelievable by people," said Chapman. "People just don’t know what it is that you are experiencing. They just can't fathom it you know, 'he talks crazy stuff out of his head.' It was difficult.”

Chapman is also mentally ill. 

“At my worst, I didn't know where I was. I thought I was in a meat grinding factory. It was terrible, I wouldn't eat, I didn't want to communicate with nobody, I was very scared," he said.

Chapman is far from that today. He believes the jail's new mental health stabilization unit is to thank, in part, for his healing. The unit is just shy of 10 months old.

“The sickest of the sick become the healthiest of the healthiest," said Jeff McIntyre. He's the health service administrator for Falkenburg Road Jail. He works under NaphCare, Inc., an independent partner to correctional facilities all over the U.S.

The unit works by turning the traditional way jails deal with the mentally ill upside down. Instead of isolation for upwards of 22 hours a day, these inmates have the possibility of accessing an open room.

It's a sort of living room for these inmates: an area where they can watch tv, make phone calls and listen to music. Inmates are also challenged to do activities like drawing, music, and yoga led by therapy staff.

But inmates also have to do their part to graduate from isolation cells to this type of freedom. They have to be willing to accept medication and therapy.

“I think it’s absolutely special, I think you won’t find anything like this in very few jails across the country," said Major Michael Farrier of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Farrier is a nearly 25-year veteran of HCSO. He's the man who brought the idea of creating this unit to the sheriff. The idea came after looking at their numbers and noticing a problem with compliance issues with these types of inmates.

Farrier says in the corrections industry there is a move away from housing the mentally ill in isolation, but few jails have been able to make the change.

The opportunity presented itself when part of the jail housing units was under construction. Farrier knew the new space could be used to house these inmates.

“Research shows that the longer you keep a mentally ill person behind glass in segregation, the more their symptoms deteriorate, the more their behavior deteriorates," he said.

Farrier says the unit comes at no extra cost. They're using existing resources under the jail's $24 million medical expenses budget. Under the program, he's reporting a 30% decrease in issues like suicide threats, self-harm, fights and personal hygiene problems.

The goal of the unit is to graduate the inmates to general population and eventually out of jail. Not only that, but to keep them out of jail by breaking the cycle.

Fewer repeat offenders means fewer victims in our community.

“Nobody wants to be in jail, especially if you’ve got a mental illness," said Farrier. "Jail is no place for mental illness. It’s a reality, It’s what we face every day but if we can keep them out of jail and into services, into family and friend support networks, that’s what we want to do.”

Chapman has seen both sides of the jail: before and after the program started.

“And sometimes that's just enough. The encouragement from people that care is sometimes just enough to put your mind in a better place. And this is the first time, this is the first facility I've ever been at that offers something like this," said Chapman.

"I think there's things about a lot of people in here that are pretty amazing. People are people. We are what we are. This is a society inside this pod that cares," said Chapman.

Chapman now helps the new guys coming in to accept the help. He shares his story and his preliminary reluctance to accept the healing.

“In the beginning, I didn't think that I deserved help. I thought that I was just a bad person that was un-fixable. Now I know that I do deserve help and I have deserved the help that I've got," he said.

In October, HCSO will present their results on this new model at the Florida Sheriff's Association of Executive Leaders Conference in Orlando. 

“The other way has been going on for a long time in the jail divisions all across the country. It’s not working. Sooner or later we as a society have to do something different. Because the problem is not going away. It’s only getting worse," said McIntyre.