​​​​​​Jail Technical Assistance Program hits road to improve mental health services​​​​

Contact: Tyler Hemstreet, DSHS Office of Communications

Tyler.Hemstreet@dshs.wa.gov or (360) 902–0265

OLYMPIA — Working to reshape the landscape of mental health services behind bars, the Office of Forensic Mental Health Services Jail Technical Assistance Program recently took to the road, traversing Washington state’s correctional facilities. Embarking on a tireless journey to 60 different jails, Tracy Grunenfelder, workforce development specialist for JTA, has been on a mission to forge a new path toward compassionate and comprehensive care.

The Office of Forensic Mental Health Services Jail Technical Assistance Program, a key component of the Trueblood Contempt Settlement Agreement, offers informational and training support to Washington jails. In a bid to provide meaningful assistance, the JTA program launched the statewide jail visit initiative in early 2022, after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. Over the span of 11 months, Grunenfelder visited all Washington jails, including 39 county jails, 15 city jails, and six tribal jails.

To facilitate the visits, jail leadership staff were sent introductory emails outlining the JTA program’s intent and objectives, inviting officials to engage in discussions about mental health services. The program also extended an invitation to facility health services and mental health professionals to participate in the dialogue as well. The conversations focused mainly on screening, assessments, treatment, and continuity of care/re-entry. Other topics of interest such as recruitment/retention, crisis intervention training, and the impact of COVID-19 on daily jail operations were also explored.

Through these visits, the JTA program achieved several benefits including building professional networks among correctional, mental health, and medical personnel; enhancing collaboration between jails; and gaining valuable insights into the challenges they face, Grunenfelder said. Furthermore, an updated facility contact list for each jail, inclusive of mental health professionals, was established. These interactions have proven instrumental in determining monthly training topics that address pressing issues in jail settings.

Tracy Grunenfelder is the workforce development specialist for the Jail Technical Assistance Program in the Office of Forensic Mental Health Services.

Some noteworthy practices Grunenfelder observed during visits included Clark County Jail’s effective reentry program run by correctional deputies, Yakima County’s robust mental health program with a dedicated mental health unit, and the Makah Tribe’s “Healing Court” initiative, which offers alternatives to conviction and incarceration by providing substance-abuse treatment and mental health evaluation for people charged with crimes.

The visits also provided valuable information about other initiatives across the state.

For instance, Disability Rights Washington toured all county jails with a particular focus on improving mental health services at Yakima County Jail. Additionally, the Spokane County Jail sought technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections, resulting in recommendations to increase the availability of mental health professionals for incarcerated individuals. And Washington State University secured a grant from the Vera Institute of Corrections to conduct a rural jail study in eastern Washington.

The JTA program received warm appreciation from jail leadership for taking the initiative to visit and understand their operations, Grunenfelder said.

“Jail representatives were forthcoming and accommodating during the visits, leading to the establishment of valuable professional relationships,” he said.

The collective efforts aim to improve mental health services for incarcerated people living with mental illness.