I attended the presentation of a new proposal for a new county jail at the Oregon Youth Authority site. The promotion has already started in the local news. This concept has been done several times before. This proposal advocates for hard prison construction (pods) at the very time when the state and the nation are trying to get out of the prison system.

Incarceration is very expensive. It is only punitive, and it rarely works. Inmates with mental disabilities, especially mental illness, and addiction comprise the vast bulk of the prison population. If the state can’t make it work, why would it work for the county?

A 2004 study by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) of our county jail suggests too many are put in jail. I think that study is still valid. It reveals many issues.

I propose that we take the Oregon Youth Authority property and use it as what might be described as a low-security, lockdown, county treatment and detention center. This would be a coming together of the sheriff’s office, the parole and probation office, county physical health and proposed county mental health office(s), county addiction services, and a proposed social work office.

The purpose of this center would be to briefly hold, detoxify, stabilize, and assess inmates, create plans, and deliver them to the next level of treatment. That next level may be a return to the community under a probation officer’s supervision, a foster home, community behavioral health treatment, addiction residential, state hospital, or before the court.

We need one dossier — a holistic folder of files, or portfolio — of arrest record, legal record, parole and probation, addiction, mental health, physical health files, and a family/community file. Over time, this dossier will give both a current status and a reliable forecast for the inmate.

Inmates should pass through this center quickly, usually not longer than about 10 days. This would maintain the inmate’s in-community support system of income, rents, and possessions. In 10 days we have a “clean” addict, a stabilized (or not) mental patient, a physically stabilized patient, a person introduced or reconnected to their probation office, and a new plan for release. By restriction to 10 days, a very large number can be processed, and still keep their community support system intact.

There is this need for a continuous community filter for an offender population that is approximately 1,200; the exact number needs to be determined. Those of highest risk go to advanced stage of treatment, which likely does destroy what supports they have. There is also need for assessment, and a plan for those returning from incarceration, or any program resulting in community supports being destroyed.

Currently, we ask that people with poor capabilities, unassisted, develop great resources, organization and a realistic plan. This course of action frequently fails, with costs borne by the community.

There is need for perhaps eight to 12 observation cells in an area of higher medical security. This is where those of altered consciousness go. Extreme intoxication, to full psychosis, to suicide watch, and all who would harm themselves or others, go here until a determination is made. Should the inmate become sober, then there is quick return to main area for addiction service. If recovery is not made, then this is a holding area for transport to medical care.

If an incident occurs in main treatment area(s), then this is where the inmate is taken, for observation. These cells have rubber surfaces, rounded edges, minimal comforts, a large glass door, and are designed for power cleaning. They can be arranged in semi-circle or pod styles — continuous observation is the need. They are cheaper to construct and operationally cost about the same as standard high-security jail cells, but without need for the redundant security.

What other benefits to this center? Currently, court orders to seek treatment and supervision are wrapped in release orders, and are too easily discarded. Here, treatment and first contact are applied. A plan is made. Probation violations are reduced.

Those of questionable mental stability, at risk for failure to appear in court, can be released by the court with proviso that they surrender to the center, or can be picked up a day or two in advance of their next court date. Failure to appear is a major cause of jail overcrowding. Using information in the dossier, the subject can be quickly found and detained.

For greater control of some in the community, the center could serve as a day release site. For times of the harshest weather, more vulnerable populations can be taken to safety and observation without need for a serious charge. There are many more opportunities for community service sentences as the support facilities for a treatment center — such as laundry, kitchen, and janitorial — also support the jail.

The professional staffing requirements are approximately the same for a high- or low-security facility. Will there still be a need for a high-security jail? There will always be a need. There will always be a need to separate inmates (Tillamook). High-security jail should be for high-security inmates bound for state incarceration. They would be inappropriate inmates for a treatment and detention center.

The current jail would meet our needs for high security if the crowding were removed. The advantages of a treatment and detention center are numerous over those of a new county jail. We don’t know how many people we have who need treatment, nor do we know how many providers there are, nor what restrictions they may have. The power of family to assist has never been utilized. The dossier is the missing information.

This site was already a detention center; it may cost very little to remodel and would be operational much sooner. Even with repeat offenders, such a center would provide in-community control of many, many times more offenders than the need today. It would have multi-purpose uses, as opposed to the singular punitive use. It is a positive step forward in community-based control.

Richard Elfering is a local mental health advocate. The original version of this column incorrectly listed him as the president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Kirk Wintermute, an Astoria attorney, is the president. NAMI Oregon says Elfering is not formally affiliated with the group.

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