CEDAR RAPIDS — A full-time psychiatric nurse at the Linn County Correctional Center is treating inmates with mental health problems, helping them get stabilized and, if needed, on medication, which jail administration hopes will reduce repeat offenses.
Linn County piloted employing Char Trager, a psychiatric nurse at the jail, about six months ago, using one-time Fund Balance dollars to pay for the program. Finding it successful, the East Central mental health region approved funding the position full-time at $119,000 annually, including employee benefits, last month.
“As we see a large portion of our inmates with mental health issues, this position has been very valuable to get these individuals medications or treatment options in a timely manner and to make sure they and everyone else in the correctional center are safe,” Jail Administrator Major Pete Wilson said in an email.
Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers said the county provided one-time funding for the position to see if it was “worthy of merit.”
“The data demonstrated it is a needed position in our correctional center,” Rogers said during a December meeting of the East Central Region board, of which he is a member.
The East Central mental health region includes Linn, Johnson and seven other counties.
Since a psychiatric nurse started at the correctional center, Trager has treated 840 people on suicide watch and discussed with them medications and how they are working. Wilson said at any given time there are six to 10 inmates on suicide watch.
Trager, who has 21 years experience working in a hospital, also has performed physicals on 97 inmates with mental health issues, decreasing the waiting time inmates have to see a psychiatric doctor or nurse from the Abbe Mental Health Center while they still are detained or after they are released.
Physicians from the Abbe Center go to the correctional center once a week. By gathering information from inmates about their mental health history, including about medication and previous treatment, the Abbe Center physicians are able to treat more patients more quickly, Wilson said.
The correctional center psychiatric nurse also works with the jail diversion program, to direct people with mental health issues out of the jail and into proper treatment.
“It takes the burden off deputies who don’t have expertise in that area,” Wilson said. “We want to get them treatment right away, so there’s not someone in need of medication.”
Inmates in mental health crisis have been treated 18 times in the jail by Trager, and she has been called in 13 times to see newly arrested people with immediate mental health needs.
“Without this position, there is a serious gap in what we need to provide individuals, so they can function appropriately in the correctional center and in society,” Wilson said.
Bremer County Supervisor Duane Hildebrandt said Linn County’s request for funding for a psychiatric nurse is “a good extension of a program that’s working.”
“It’s very costly to run a jail,” Hildebrandt said. “Bringing the same inmate in over and over and over again over a mental health issue makes no sense at all. If we’re going to commit to helping people with mental health problems, this is the perfect place to start.
“We may end up saving money in the long run for our taxpayers.”
Lisa Green-Douglass, a Johnson County Supervisor, echoed Hildebrandt’s sentiment, saying it is “incumbent” on the region to provide funding for mental health services.
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“If we’re concerned about dollars, right there, that’s going to lower the cost,” Green-Douglass said during the East Central Region board meeting. “It’s also the right thing to do.”
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