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County jail needs more funding to handle mental health, say experts

Morgan Springer
(From left to right) Former Judge Philip Rodgers, Jail Adminstrator Captain Todd Ritter and Committee Chair Sonny Wheelock all sit on a committee evaluating mental health services in the jail.

Following two suicides at the Grand Traverse County jail, county leaders are focusing their attention on mental health services there. That will likely mean the county will spend more money on the jail. In a meeting last night, mental health stakeholders suggested some improvements.

Northern Lakes Community Mental Health provides the bulk of mental health services at the jail. They gave the main presentation Tuesday night to the Grand Traverse County board of commissioners Ad Hoc jail committee, saying that while their state funding has been slashed in recent years, they have suggestions to improve prisoners’ mental health.

Joanie Blamer, chief populations officer at Northern Lakes, said they’ll increase the mental health trainings they offer the county at no charge. She also recommended the county hire two additional mental health positions in the jail. One hire would be a licensed mental health professional, which Northern Lakes estimates would cost the county $98,000 a year, including salary and benefits.

Blamer says the other position, a certified peer support specialist, would operate kind of like case manager, and the person would have experience with incarceration and mental illness.

“They’ve been in this position, and they’ve overcome," Blamer said. "And they can relate to people in ways that we can’t as professionals or in ways that the corrections staff can’t.”

That position would cost the county $65,000, including salary and benefits.


Credit Morgan Springer
Joanie Blamer of Northern Lakes Community Mental Health presents ideas for jail mental health improvements.

Former Judge Philip Rodgers – who sits on the committee – was skeptical of the cost. 

“I guess the crassest way to put it: a former felon who was once mentally ill with 40 hours of training?" questions Rodgers. "I don’t know of a single person in my old office who makes $65,000 a year. I don’t know of a corrections officer that makes $65,000 a year.”

Other members had questions about the costs too. They also questioned if Northern Lakes is doing all it can for the inmates.

Two other organizations who work with the jail – Well-spring Psychiatry and Correct Care Solutions – sent proposals but did not present in person. They also suggested the county hire new mental health staff. Both of their plans came with higher price tags than Northern Lakes’ proposal. Members of the committee said they would like to go over these two proposals in more detail at a later meeting when representatives for both organizations are able to be there.

Committee members acknowledged that they don't yet know what is the best combination of services for the jail and need to do more research. The ultimate goal is for the committee to pinpoint a number of recommended improvements for the jail, and put those recommendations before the county's Board of Commissioners for approval.

Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.