Mental Health in Michigan Jails: UP Sheriff Calls System ‘Broken’

A Northern Michigan sheriff says the mental health system is broken.

Now a situation at his jail has him taking action in hopes of change. 

Chippewa County Sheriff Michael Bitnar says he has a veteran in the Chippewa County Correctional Facility in desperate need of long term, professional mental health services.

The sheriff says he has exhausted every avenue, and cannot find anywhere that can help the man.

“Something got to get done,” Bitnar said.

In October 2019, Bitnar first received reports of the veteran. He tried to find a facility to help him, but when he couldn’t the county had to press charges.

“He was too violent for himself and others to just release, so we had to bring him here,” Bitnar said.

In December 2019, the veteran was found incompetent to stand trial.

“None of the agencies who work with mental health were able to provide us a bed, we couldn’t getting him placed anywhere,” Bitnar said. “We were told his bed wouldn’t be available until June.”

While the county offers inmates mental health services, Bitnar says he cannot offer the veteran the level of care he needs.

“He needs long term, professional help and we can’t provide that in a correctional facility,” Bitnar said. “To see a man, a veteran, not be able to get the help he needs is just heartbreaking.”

Bitnar took to the department’s Facebook page in hopes someone, somewhere could help. It’s been shared nearly 700 times.

“Hopefully people would understand that it’s not an inmate, it’s a human being up there, and a veteran deserves better,” Bitnar said.

Bitnar says this is just one of many stories.

“We have at least four waiting, that are incompetent to stand trial waiting for beds right now, he just happens to be the worst case,” Bitnar said. “I’ve been all over the state for this exact problem, and every time I go to these meetings everyone agrees there’s a problem, but nothing ever gets done.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services runs the state mental health facilities.

They say the wait time for a state bed is down compared to last year

In a statement, the department says they realize “more work needs to be done.” They go on to say “these delays in access to restoration treatment have been a primary focus for MDHHS.”

They say they are working with agencies across the state to find a solution.

Sheriff Bitnar says since he made that Facebook post, several people and agencies have reached out to him, in hopes to finding a bed for that inmate soon.

According to a report from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, the state is currently looking into ways to address mental health in jails.

Here are some points the report makes on mental health:

It shows that nearly a quarter of anyone entering a jail in Michigan has a serious mental illness.

That shoots up to 34% for rural jails, like many in Northern Michigan, compare that to 21% and 19% for metropolitan and urban jails.

The report recommends behavioral health training for law enforcement, and authorizing law enforcement to partner with community organizations to divert people with behavioral health needs away from the justice system.

To read the full report, click here.

Access to mental health care for those outside of jail in Northern Michigan is getting a financial boost.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan announced Tuesday the Northern Michigan Community Health Innovation Region has been awarded over $600,000 in grants.

They partner with health and community providers in 10 counties.

They say this money will help them to continue connecting community members to the health services they need, including mental health services.