La Crosse County sheriff: Jailing mentally ill 'is not right'

La Crosse County sheriff: Jailing mentally ill 'is not right'

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La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson, lamenting the fact that so many inmates in the county jail are struggling with mental health issues, nonetheless is thankful that police, deputies and jail personnel are better trained to accommodate such inmates.

La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson


“We never had training on how to deal with mentally ill when I started,” said Helgeson, who has served more than three decades in the sheriff’s department, including roles as a reserve deputy, patrol deputy, patrol sergeant, investigator, jail sergeant, jail administrator and chief deputy before being elected sheriff 12 years ago.

Judge Scott Horne


Helgeson made the observation during Community Conversations addresses he and Circuit Court Judge Scott Horne delivered Wednesday at English Lutheran Church in La Crosse. Nearly 175 people attended the hour-long lunch/speech session, as the two discussed the issues surrounding the high number of inmates who have mental health issues.

Law enforcement training, sponsored largely by the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area, has helped deputies and officers recognize signs that someone they respond to during a call might be having a mental health episode instead of being involved in a crime.

Such training helps them de-escalate situations to get people treatment they need instead of jailing them, he said.

“One officer who started 30 years ago said the training made a huge difference on how he deals with mentally ill people,” Helgeson said.

“I see that our officers are much more compassionate than when I started,” said Helgeson, who has announced that he will retire at the end of the year.

That compassion helps law enforcement representatives recognize the difference between a mental situation and criminal intent and guide them on how to approach individuals, he said.

He cited the example of a 26-year-old woman who was naked and walking down the street at noon.

“She didn’t want to go to the hospital,” and would have ended up in jail had not officers taken extra steps to get her clothed and call family members, who were able to persuade her to go to the hospital for treatment, he said.

Then there was the case of a man who saw his reflection in a store window and broke it, because he imagined that it was the devil talking to him, as well as another incident in which a man who destroyed a phone booth after answering the phone and believing the devil was harassing him, Helgeson said.

“These people were not criminals, but what do we do with them, and where do we put them?” he said, decrying what has become known as the “criminalization of mental illness.”

He contrasted that with other illnesses, saying, “If I had diabetes and couldn’t get treatment, they wouldn’t put me in jail.”

About 40 percent of the roughly 6,000 people put in the La Crosse County Jail each year self-report themselves as having mentally ill diagnoses, and 30 percent are on medications, he said.

Such stats make the jail “a de facto psych ward” in which the “sheriff runs the largest psych unit in the county,” he said.

“Often the mentally ill are picked on,” he said, explaining that the jail has 114 beds in two pods where they can be housed instead of in cells in the general population. “In those pods, they can get help.”

Those accommodations are the result, in part, of the county board’s seeing the need for a more enlightened approach, with a program director, a full-time psychiatric therapist, a doctor and 24-hour nursing care, he said.

Finding housing for mentally ill people in the community is the biggest challenge, Helgeson said, noting that one inmate with severe mental issues is on lockdown because he is so difficult to handle, including throwing a cup of urine on a jailer.

Jail officials called Mendota Mental Health Institute, a public psychiatric hospital in Madison operated by the state’s Department of Health Services to get him treatment there.

The man is 70th on the waiting list for admission, with no indication of how soon he will move up the list, Helgeson said, adding, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not right the way we treat the mentally ill in jail.”

Horne referenced the case in which Bryan Stanley killed the pastor, a lay minister and custodian at St. Patrick Church in Onalaska in February 1985, shortly after Horne was elected La Crosse County district attorney after being a prosecutor in the D.A.’s office for four years.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” he said, because Stanley had a history of mental health problems, and the slayings might have been avoided if he had been put into treatment instead of being allowed to roam the streets in the throes of paranoid schizophrenia.

Now, the district attorney and judges have discretion to have a person involuntarily committed for treatment under a civil procedure called a Chapter 51 or for protection under a Chapter 55, for people with dementia and other incurable maladies.

Had Chapter 51 been in effect then, Stanley probably would have been committed before he was able to kill anyone, Horne said.

“What’s at issue is not just mental illness, but it’s relation to crime,” he said. “Some must go to prison,” while others can be treated for mental illness.

In 2011, Wisconsin spent more to incarcerate people than it did to educate children, he said.

“The faith community can serve as a source of spiritual growth and a place for healthy activity” for people grappling with mental health and other issues such as addiction, Horne said.

“Housing is a huge issue, especially early in recovery,” he said, noting three steps in the process — prevention, intervention and confinement.

“The most effective is to get people at an earlier stage with mental illness or addiction,” the judge said.

Community Conversations is a monthly program of the Interfaith Leaders Coalition that takes place on the third Wednesday of most months to discuss issues in a nonpartisan fashion.

Mike Tighe can be reached at mtighe@lacrossetribune<mailto:mtighe@lacrossetribune>, or follow him on Twitter at @necktye.


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