Addressing mental health in Erie County jails

ALDEN, N.Y.  (WIVB) — The man who committed suicide last week at Erie County’s Correctional Facility in Alden is believed to be among the 400 inmates countywide who have mental illnesses.

Addressing the need of a third of its incarcerated population is just one of the reasons why the county chose to implement crisis intervention teams in its jails — making them one of the only agencies in the state to do so.

“It’s the last thing you want to hear when you come into work.”

Last week’s suicide of an inmate from Hamburg struck a chord with the staff at Alden Correctional, and especially with Sgt. Michael Knezevic.

Knezevic is in charge of crisis intervention at county jails in Alden and the Holding Center downtown, helping to train deputies and respond to the mental health needs of nearly a third of the county’s jail population.

“You’ll always wonder what could I have done to prevent this,” he said. “Is there something more we could be doing in the facility.”

In fact, they already are.

With the help of Crisis Services and people like the agency’s program coordinator Kristen Adduci, Erie County has become one of the first in the state to implement crisis intervention teams of this caliber in its jails.

Adduci and her staff have trained more than 300 law enforcement officers in Erie County, including those at Alden and the Holding Center.

The goal is to begin offering mental health services right on the street to prevent unnecessary jail time and involuntary hospital visits and reduce reciviticism rates.

“The culture of law enforcement is always very rushed because they always have to keep moving from call to call,” Adduci said. “Same thing with corrections. But we want them to slow it down. That’s one of the biggest parts of CIT is slowing down.”

They also encourage law enforcement to be better communicators, have more empathy and how to recognize when someone is dealing with a mental illness or episode.

Jail deputies at Alden and at the holding center have become direct, empathetic and proactive with inmates, Knezevic said.

Still, even the best programs aren’t guaranteed.

“I believe there will always be circumstances and tragedy that cannot be prevented,” Knezevic said. “And we spend hours and hours of training trying to make a perfect system in an imperfect world, and it’s just … there will always be some tragedy.”

But there have been improvement, he said.

“It’s definitely made things better as far as living conditions for the inmates, the working conditions for the staff,” Knezevic said. “It also helps to build a rapport with the staff. When they feel that you’re helping them and they see that help, they’re thankful for that, they’re appreciative.”

While the program has been ongoing for the past few years, and more than 300 members of law enforcement have taken the training, there are additional plans to take it a step further, with additional interventions and more direct contact between police and crisis services on the streets and in local facilities.

 

 

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