Commissioners approve mental health program at Hamilton County jail
After nearly two years of planning, Hamilton County's jail will work to address mental illnesses.
On Wednesday, Hamilton County Commissioners approved the sheriff's office to accept $125,000 in grant money to fund mental health support at the jail.
Sheriff Jim Hammond estimates about 40 percent Hamilton County inmates have mental health issues and do not belong in the jail.
As of Tuesday, more than 1,500 inmates stayed in the Hamilton County jail system, close to half of them have some sort of mental illness, according to the sheriff's office.
"As sheriff, I am constantly hearing from families that say, 'I just don't know what to do at this level, they won't come in off the streets, they get abused, they get mistreated, they're on all kinds of meds,' Hammond explained.
Instead of getting the help they need, many end up behind bars. Hammond said they are a jailing people who should be in a hospital with trained specialists instead.
To fix the problem he looked into the Frequent Users Systems Engagement program (FUSE).
"We think this will go a long way once we get it fully up and running to provide some wrap around service to keep these individuals from coming into the jail," he said.
Mental health specialists will provide support, help find long-term housing and rehabilitate inmates. The goal is to get them the help they need and keep them from re-entering the system.
"We're spending about $94,000 to $97,000 dollars a day just to house prisoners. As you can imagine if 40 percent of those were removed, that's a significant savings in taxpayer dollars," Hammond said.
County commissioners approved the sheriff's office to accept a $10,000 grant from UNUM, a $20,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, a $25,000 grant from the Weldon F. Osborne Foundation, a $25,000 grant from CHI Memorial and a $40,000 grant from the Robert l. & Kathrina H. Maclellan Foundation for the FUSE program.
Commissioners also approved an amendment to match up to $125,000 to support the program.
Hammond said without the funding the jail will become a mental health hospital, which he said his staff is not certified to do.
"My hope is that it will reduce it down to zero in the jail, but in reality even if we could reduce half that number you could see the cost savings when you reduce that number," Hammond said.
Nashville and Memphis use similar programs, both have seen a reduction in mental health inmates.
Sheriff Hammond said he hopes to start providing the mental health services "very soon."