'We should be supporting them': Pasco County jail mental health coordinator helps inmates connect with services

Officials estimate a third of inmates at the Pasco County jail have a mental illness. The Sheriff's Office is trying to help.
Published August 22

The mental health coordinator at the Pasco County jail sees incarceration as something more than punishment. She sees it as a chance for rehabilitation.

Stefanie Beetz has worked with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office for almost two years and has helped create two housing units in the jail dedicated to inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems. The newest unit — for lower-level offenders — opened July 1 at the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center. The unit for higher-level offenders opened in August 2018.

“If you have people that are coming out of jail ready to take on their mental illness, then it makes your communities better,” Beetz said. “We should be supporting them.”

All inmates in the Pasco County jail have access to monthly groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as access to psychiatric visits, Beetz said. The new mental health units intensify treatment, with inmates attending group therapy sessions three times per week.

Inmates who want to move into the new 65-person unit for low-level offenders had to apply to get in. They submitted essays detailing issues they struggle with, goals they have and how they envision a successful recovery.

Inmate stays in the jail vary in length from days to months, so Beetz said she keeps the curriculum fluid and applicable, whether it’s an inmate’s first session or one of many sessions he has attended.

The focus is on life after release. It is designed to connect inmates with in-patient and outpatient services, case workers and prepare them for jobs with resume writing and interview skills, Beetz said.

“A lot of these people do not have support,” Beetz said. So connecting people with resources before their release is important. She works with a team of six for the jail's mental health care, including a psychiatrist and registered nurse.

Beetz and other officials estimate that one third of Pasco County jail inmates are living with mental illness. Two of the biggest contributors to criminal activity are untreated mental illnesses and substance abuse said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Hunter, and the county lacks mental health care providers.

“Connecting these individuals to services and educating them about ways to address their problems can, in turn, help with recidivism,” Hunter said.

In addition to the new jail units, the Sheriff’s Office announced in June it plans to create a mental health and threat assessment team equipped with deputies and social workers to respond to crises in the community. They make connections with people with mental illnesses who regularly come in contact with police.

County sheriffs across the country often say they feel like they are running mental health facilities rather than detention centers, said Risë Haneberg of the Stepping Up Initiative. Stepping Up, a partnership of three national psychiatric and governmental organizations, aims to reduce the number of people with serious mental illness in jail. The initiative is not currently partnered with Pasco County.

Pasco County’s new units serve only men, but jail officials hope to open a women’s unit.

James Davis, 54, has been incarcerated since 2010. He said he joined the 33-person unit for higher-level offenders last year. Davis is being held on a charge of first-degree murder.

Before joining the program, he said he spent his days playing cards and watching TV. He had been to prison before and said he always blamed someone else for the crimes he committed.

At first, Davis was hesitant to participate in the new unit. He called it the “bug pod.” But after a year of group therapy and one-on-one sessions, he said he sees the world differently.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened in a long time,” he said. He has come to understand that drug abuse contributes to mental health issues.

The program is especially helpful for those in jail for the first time, Davis said. It forces them to do self-evaluation.

Beetz and the Sheriff’s Office have different ways to measure the units’ success.

She looks at things from a clinical perspective. If inmates understand the material discussed in the group and it is relevant to them, she considers that success. She said inmates often tell her that talking about their mental health diagnosis in depth is helpful.

The goal for the Sheriff’s Office is to lower the jail population and reduce recidivism.

“We want to see how it grows,” Beetz said. “And how we can help the population.”

Contact Sarah Verschoor at sverschoor@tampabay.com. Follow @SarahVerschoor.

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