Audit says Denver prison lacks strategy for dealing with mental health

A Denver prison maintains unreliable data on its mental health programs, fails to adequately monitor its contracts with mental health providers, and cannot show whether its transgender inmates are housed according to their preferences, according to a review published Thursday.

The Denver Sheriff division offers a range of programs to help inmates deal with mental health and substance abuse, but it lacks a comprehensive strategy that would lead to greater impact, says Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien.

“Mental illness is not a crime, and the goal is to work on supportive programs that prevent people from returning to the prison system,” O’Brien said in a press release. “Incarcerated people with a history of mental health needs are at greater risk of running back through the system over and over again if they do not get the care they need in prison and when they return to the community.”

The prison has 20 active contracts and grants to provide services ranging from education, life skills, drug and alcohol assessment and re-socialization, but the department does not adequately monitor these contracts or work on a comprehensive plan to reduce recidivism, the report He said. The auditor said that one program, which provides treatment and community return planning for people waiting for a mental competency assessment, “appears unfair” because it is only offered to men living in prison.

People held in prison receive a mental health assessment, including drug and alcohol addiction issues, after which they are allowed to seek help with these or other mental, medical, or dental services. The audit focused on mental health services.

The report discovered inconsistencies and errors in prison mental health data, including data that would help identify ineffective patterns of care. Also, management fails to provide adequate oversight over many of its contractors. The review described a system in which contractors submit their invoices, and there is no follow-up regarding services that have already been provided.

Inside the Downtown Denver Detention Center. October 11, 2018 (Kevin J. Petty, Denveret)

“Management is just paying the bill,” O’Brien said. “The lack of oversight from a third-party contracting party is a citywide problem and risks ineffective use of taxpayer money.”

The review also found that while the mayor’s department’s policy required deputies to be able to identify mental health issues, the department was unable to provide documentation that it was following its training requirements. Employees are supposed to attend mental health classes.

The prison auditor recommended the following:

– Stop using paper records and move to all electronic records in order to better track program results. Tracking outcomes for people who left prison and then joined community programs. The auditor said the department “needs the resources to make their record keeping this century for accuracy and continuity of care.”

Prioritize mental health services for those who return to the prison system frequently. Providing people with chronic mental health problems with more support upon release from prison, including being placed in community programs.

Develop a central strategy so that mental health programs work together continuously.

– View all programs on both sides of the prison for men and women.

Determine within 72 hours of confinement whether a transgender person prefers housing with women or men “to avoid psychological harm from segregated housing.” Transgender people were initially housed alone for safety reasons, but this “should not continue for longer than necessary,” the review states.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to implement all of the recommendations, and last year appointed the first-ever chief of mental health services. The department said Dr. Nikki Johnson was already addressing many of the issues identified in the review.

“We have made mental health services a priority knowing the importance of meeting the mental health needs of individuals in detention,” Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins said in a press release. “Our goal is to bring best practices in line with mental health standards to the community and assist in the success of each individual as they return to the community.”

Prison mental health services are among the best in the country, including connecting people with mental illness to community services when they leave prison, according to the department.

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