TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County’s sheriff had a simple message for county commissioners: The services provided at the jail are woefully inadequate and it’s time for a change.

Sheriff Tom Bensley on Wednesday night explained to commissioners how the county’s jail for years has been undersized, understaffed and insufficient for inmates who require mental health treatment. He said officials ought to hire additional medical staff and consider building a new facility altogether.

“We’ve got an issue with taking care of inmates that need some level of mental health care,” Bensley said. “We need someone to do that. … Something has to be done and it all comes down to money.”

The county’s jail — first constructed in 1964 on Washington Street — has undergone two renovations during the past few decades, but an ever-increasing number of inmates continue to strain its 168-person capacity. Ongoing staff shortages have exacerbated recent concerns, Bensley added.

Five vacancies have forced an already slim staff of corrections officers into constant overtime. Bensley also said inmates suffering from mental conditions have clogged a limited number of observation cells. They need more than just the one, part-time psychologist on staff, he added.

“Now is the time. It’s the time for us to put this as a priority,” said Commissioner Cheryl Gore-Follette. “It’s something that has been talked about. … The board needs to commit to moving forward. All of these issues and probably a whole lot more will come out as we start to explore this.”

Chairwoman Carol Crawford immediately appointed members to a newly formed committee designed to address those needs. Commissioners Addison “Sonny” Wheelock Jr. and Tom Mair, Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Ritter and former 13th Circuit Court Judge Phillip Rodgers were selected.

Their directive: Move quickly.

“The first thing they’ll do is deal with mental health issues,” Crawford said.

Bensley suggested the county expand its contract with Correct Care Solutions to include a full-time psychiatric nurse or therapist. They would provide services to the 70 percent of inmates who need help but are currently ineligible for treatment through Northern Lakes Community Mental Health.

CMH — which receives the bulk of its funding from federal Medicaid dollars — is legally barred from treating those who haven’t already been a patient. That treatment is financially limited but also entirely voluntary at the jail. There’s no contract that mandates those services, officials emphasized.

“Everyone in the room and pretty much everyone in the community has heard me bitch about CMH since I’ve been on this board,” Wheelock said. “The fact of the matter is they are not meeting the mental health needs of the county. … We need more mental health services at the jail.”

Bensley also suggested remodeling the intake area of the jail to better accommodate inmate needs. He said the funds for that project already are in the budget. He just needs the board to approve it.

“If it’s overcrowded, if there’s too many people in there, that’s definitely a problem so we (board inmates to neighboring jails),” Bensley said. “Other agencies want our best inmates. What are we left with? High-maintenance inmates that require more intensive supervision.”

A spate of recent suicides and suicide attempts among the inmates at the county’s jail has heightened community concerns. Nonprofit groups — like Before During and After Incarceration — have long advocated for enhancements to what some considered fatal flaws at the county’s most secure facility.

Toni Stanfield, vice-chairwoman of BDAI, urged commissioners to consider their options. She said this week’s meeting was a step in the right direction but contended staffing issues need to hashed out long before officials consider pursuing their long-term vision of a constructing a new jail.

“They said that could take five years,” Stanfield said. “What are we going to do in the meantime?”

Crawford said the newly formed committee — after mental health is addressed — will consider the appointment of a consultant to guide officials toward a new jail. She also called for the reformation of the defunct Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to further analyze the county’s needs.

Bensley said the new construction — estimated to total to at least $27 million — will only be funded through a millage or bond. It’s now up to commissioners to decide which route to take, he said.

“I don’t think anybody here would argue that we need a new facility,” Bensley said. “We’d probably have one today but it costs a lot of money. … We need to figure it out.”

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