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Report: A different approach to policing and mental health in Mecklenburg

Sheriff Garry McFadden

North Carolina Health News published an in-depth look today at the state’s first behavioral health unit located in a county jail, which opened in August in Mecklenburg County.

The jail psychiatric unit in downtown Charlotte, known as “McP,” looks like a school, according to the news article. Residents take daily medications, attend group classes and participate in therapy with the goal of rehabilitating before returning to the general population in the Mecklenburg County Central Detention Center or being released to the outside world.

The unit is a voluntary program with space for 28 male residents, according to Health News. There are currently six men taking part in the program, each of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness by a counselor upon intake.

Residents who join the psychiatric unit must participate in a full day of classes during the week, take their medications and be considered non-violent. Behavioral health counselors are contracted from a Tennessee-based company that provides staffing for correctional facilities and rehabilitation centers.

“One of our goals was to make sure that they’re good to be able to function in a normal pod in another unit,” said Sgt. Charles Pearson, the “P” in “McP.” “Some of them… they can’t function in another pod, they can’t be around a lot of people, they can’t follow orders. They end up in our segregation unit, and we don’t want that.”

Segregation (often referred to as solitary confinement) is exactly the opposite of what inmates with mental health issues need, said Luke Woollard, an attorney with the legal advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina.

“These folks with mental illness end up isolated … which often causes them to get worse because they’re not given any other care,” Woollard said. “[They need] the ability to get out of cells, access trained professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists [and] access medications they’ve been prescribed.”

There are already plans in the works to offer medication-assisted treatment to inmates with addiction and a goal to liven the place up while also raising funding for a women’s unit next year, according to the article.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden said he put together the unit without additional funding after chatting with Pearson, modeling it after a similar unit in Nashville, Tenn. He’s looking forward to buying cozy, high backed chairs for a “living room” effect and to finding funds to open a women’s unit next year.

“We want to be almost a community,” said McFadden, the “Mc” in “McP,” about their goals for the unit. “For me, I think it’s what we should’ve been doing the whole time.”

“When people say ‘Why are you doing this?’ [I respond] ‘I’m preparing your neighbor,’” McFadden continued.

Per the U.S. Department of Justice, 95 percent of people who enter prison eventually return to their communities.

“It’s helping our citizens, we want to return them back… we want to return that citizen back better.”

Read the full report here, which goes in depth into mental health care in jails and crisis intervention training.

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