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Local jail tackles mental illness with new doctor

Published: Apr. 21, 2015 at 2:30 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 21, 2015 at 3:08 PM CDT
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Amarillo, TX - Inmates with mental illness are a top concern for the Potter County Detention Center, especially when those inmates fill up jail beds instead of receiving the mental health care they need.

The Potter County Commissioners' Court recently approved a new tool for the jail to prevent those inmates from becoming repeat offenders. For the first time, the jail will now have its own psychiatrist on staff who can treat inmates who suffer a severe mental illness.

According to Sheriff Brian Thomas, about 10 to 12 percent of Potter County inmates have one of those severe mental illnesses.

"The top mental illnesses we deal with at the jail are schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and major depression," said Sharon Powell, a mental health counselor at the jail.

Although Powell provides a service to mental health patients at the jail, she can't actually treat them. That is why she said she is thankful Dr. Elizabeth Ohiku now can. "Dr. Ohiku can evaluate them and get them on medications and get them squared away," explained Powell.

Together they can work with outside resources to make sure the inmates have support once they are released as well.

That is something Sheriff Thomas said is key to stop the revolving door syndrome. "Let's face it, we have people in our jail that don't need to be in our jail," said Thomas. "They have some severe psychosis that needs to be taken care of. They can't think normally and they just don't have the mental capacity to justify or realize what they are doing."

Potter County officials are also working on starting a mental health court, which would put the offenders on probation instead of in jail. "So we're trying to free up those spaces in the jail, trying to give them help at the same time, and the long-term goal is that they don't ever come back to jail," said Thomas.