The Colorado Department of Corrections recently revealed that 1 in 6 adult inmates and 1 in 4 youth offenders suffer from a mental illness.
The Cortez Journal recently asked its Facebook fans to submit subject areas they'd like Montezuma County sheriff candidates to address. Mental health resources available at the jail topped the list.
Republican candidate Steve Nowlin said he believes inmates with mental illness are one of the greatest challenges facing the criminal justice system, adding the state's "county jails and detention centers were becoming mental health institutions."
Write-in candidate Mike Steele didn't respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Last year, an inmate at the Montezuma County jail committed suicide and another died in custody after chronic alcohol use. In response, Axis Mental Health secured a grant to launch a program that would better evaluate the mental health and substance abuse needs of inmates.
If elected, Nowlin said he'd build on the program and invite additional local mental health officials, including alcohol and drug treatment services, into the Montezuma County Detention Center. He said combining treatment efforts and drug source enforcement with education and prevention could make a difference.
"I am not an advocate of increased taxes by any means, but mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse have been a constant problem source in our county for years and it's increasing," said Nowlin. "We cannot afford to ignore it any longer."
Despite the added resources under Sheriff Dennis Spruell's administration, a local public defender recently argued in open court that the jail's mental health services were "intermittent" at best. Compounding the problem, it was revealed during a civil malpractice trial this year that an apparent agreement between the sheriff's office and the local hospital to evaluate inmates who should be placed on mental health holds could be inadequate.
Attempts to seek comment from the sheriff's office were unsuccessful.
Without proper evaluation, treatment and follow-up, Nowlin said jail doors would continue to revolve for those suffering from mental health issues.
"If an offender is never properly diagnosed and provided proper treatment, they will most likely return to criminal behavior and become incarcerated again," he said.
The lack of mental health resources behind bars is not unique to Montezuma County. Stephen Sampson, a nationally known psychologist who specializes in treating law enforcement officers, said more and more jails across the nation were evolving into mental health institutions. Besides proper treatment for inmates, Sampson argues the issue also places added pressures on detention staff that may neither have the adequate skills and training to effectively cope with the stress the job entails.
Nowlin said he'd ensure proper training was made available for all employees, especially detention deputies.
"I will work for and be responsible for the health, safety and welfare of every sheriff's office employee and detention center inmate," said Nowlin.