Recommendations for mental health reform in the El Paso County jail have earned one staff member international attention.
Stephanie Gangemi, a behavioral health programs manager for the county’s Sheriff’s Office, was awarded first place in the Seidenberg Prize contest last week for her proposal to better train corrections officers in managing inmates with mental illness, to thus reduce injuries, abuse, burnout and trauma in both populations.
In Gangemi’s view, corrections officers are increasingly called upon to manage “some of the most severely disturbed and impaired members of society,” who often are brought to jail because they committed petty crimes or because law enforcement doesn’t know where else to take them.
A program launching next week is aimed at intercepting some of those folks during routine calls for service, redirecting them toward appropriate resources, such as Aspen Pointe or Cedar Springs Hospital. Jail sometimes is unavoidable, though, and officers need to know how to safely and effectively manage those inmates with mental illness, Gangemi says.
She plans to use her $15,000 in prize money to implement an educational tool that officers can use to identify some behaviors associated with mental disorders and learn how to respond to them.
“The mental health needs at the jail and in the community are severe,” Gangemi said. “I think people underestimate the degree to which the community is sick.”
Mental illness in the jail was highlighted last summer when the county announced back-to-back record-setting days for the jail’s population. The jail had nearly 1,800 inmates, of whom 60 percent to 75 percent had some mental illness, said then-Detention Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln. At least 30 to 50 of those inmates had illnesses so severe that Lincoln, who is now retired, said they did “not belong in this facility.”
He described inmates who smeared feces across their cell walls, frequently went nude, and racked up additional charges for assaulting jail staff, either with bodily fluid or physical force. Last year, the jail reported 72 assaults, 38 of which were physical, records show. This year, there have been 27, with 16 being physical.
When an inmate’s behavior becomes too severe, posing a risk to their safety as well as staff’s, they may be recommended for placement in the state’s Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, but it has a waiting list. In the interim, care falls to jail staff.
Gangemi says her tool can help staff navigate “the many complexities of dealing with the mentally ill.” But another tool launching next week will help some in crisis avoid jail altogether, she says.
The co-responder program will partner deputies with a behavioral health specialist who can recognize signs of crisis and better manage them, helping to “divert a significant number of folks from going to the jail,” Gangemi said.
The program mirrors the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Community Response Team, which has been operating since 2014. Last year, that three-man team, which includes a police officer trained in crisis intervention, a mental health professional and a paramedic, responded to 3,116 incidents involving 1,880 patients.
Gangemi’s paper won first prize over 25 others. Some were submitted by specialists in the U.S., Argentina, Denmark, Ecuador, England, Israel, Italy and Peru.