Brad Byrd In-Depth: Campaign to Keep Mentally Ill People Out of Jail

People with a mental illness in trouble with the law are becoming a part of a crisis facing many jails and prisons across Indiana which are overcrowding.

Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment (C.A.J.E.) are working with the City of Evansville, the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office, and other organizations to create a new program to help people deal with mental illnesses and keep them out of jails. They are looking to create a crisis intervention center.

Brad Byrd talks with Linda Henzman and Tom Bogenschutz of C.A.J.E. about the issue of mentally ill people being kept in jails and the campaign to create a crisis intervention center.

Transcript of interview:

Brad Byrd: "Welcome to In-Depth. It has become in many ways a tragedy. People with a mental illness, in trouble with the law, becoming a part of a crisis facing many jails and prisons: the crisis of overcrowding. Tonight, we talk about crime and punishment but also treatment. I am joined by Linda Henzman. She is the co-chair of C.A.J.E., Congregations Acting for Justice and Empowerment and Tom Bogenshutz with C.A.J.E. Linda and Tom, we have covered this group extensively over the years, and C.A.J.E. is basically made up of so many congregations in the Tri-State. Tell me if you could put this in a cliffnotes version, what do you do?"

Linda Henzman: "In 2003, some downtown interfaith ministers decided they wanted to find a way they could work on justice issues in the Evansville area, and they formed C.A.J.E. with just a few congregations. Today, we have 22 congregations in Vanderburgh, Warrick, and Posey County. We're very diverse in our faith beliefs, racially, economically. We listen to folks. We have what we call a listening process. Last year, we engaged over 600 people. We listened to their stories. We asked what concerned them. We heard stories through the years about mothers whose sons are coming home from prison, and then they are worried they're just going to reoffend and just go back. We heard stories of families who have mentally ill loved ones and end up in jail for a minor offense. We take these on as problems, we research them, teams of volunteers talk to leaders in the community and throughout the country. We've traveled to San Antonio, Texas to do research. We've traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to do research, and then we come back and we ask our leaders to take action on these problems."

Brad Byrd: "And Tom, we're talking about non-violent offenders here. Mental health issues, that's just a blanket term, and that can mean so many different things. But these are situations in which basically someone is causing a disturbance, doesn't have a weapon or anything but needs help. Sometimes you tell me there are two places that person may be taken to if that person is arrested. Tell me about that."

Tom Bogenshutz: "Exactly, generally when a police officer finds a person minor offense, you got two options. Either send them to jail or to the emergency room, and neither are well equipped to treat those kind of problems. And so, one of the things that we are proposing are we have found in best practices out there is something called a crisis intervention center that allows a person to be assessed and evaluated and then hopefully stabilized with the intent of bringing them back into the community and back into their home where they can continue to living their life under the right stabilization under the right medication."

Brad Byrd: "And this mental health commission, this local commission, this is not just C.A.J.E. involved in this. This is the community, the mayor you told me, also Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding. You're talking about two experts too, Linda, in trying to come up with some type of solution for a proposed center to help individuals who need help."

Linda Henzman: "Yeah, this commission is looking at locations, they're looking at how it would be staffed, they're looking at finding the funding. This commission is made up of representatives from the local hospitals, the sheriff as you mentioned is on this commission, Wyatt Hatfield with ECHO is co-chair along with the mayor. There are mental health professionals involved, and they are meeting every other month with the intent to put together this crisis intervention center."

Brad Byrd: "And you tell me the homeless population here in the community, Aurora has had some success. Tell me about that."

Linda Henzman: "That was our project for this year. We had stories of ex-offenders coming out of the prison system but re-offending and going right back. So, we wanted to take this on. It's called recidivism. And we wanted to take that on and solve this problem and keep from this revolving door of going back into the jail. We did our research. Again, we talked to all sorts of people in that area, and we found out that homelessness is the main problem, that there are jobs, but these ex-offenders struggle finding a place to live. That led us to Aurora who has a very successful program working with ex-offenders. Their recidivism rate is only 5 percent, where the rate for the state of Indiana is 40 percent of people re-offend."

Brad Byrd: "And Tom, you've been involved in the ministry for 20 years I believe?"

Tom Bogenschutz: "25 years."

Brad Byrd: "25 years. Let's put a human face on this. I know you've talked to experts. You've talked to Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding, and he has spoken volumes about the crisis that jails not only here in the Tri-State but in other parts of Indiana are undergoing with this overcrowding problem. Put a human face on this when you've talked to someone who's been there."

Tom Bogenschutz: "Yeah, I think the more poignant conversations we have are those family members who have mental health problems within the family. The frustration is they often get caught in going to the jails sometimes on the street and back into the jail without really addressing their immediate need. A lot of times the situation is they sometimes get off their medication, and then jail is not often times the best place to deal with that. But if we can create and ideal situation environment which they can get the treatment that they need and get back to their families and hopefully engage them longer term with treatment."

Brad Byrd: "Realistically, how far off is this if you can give me a ballpark idea as far as getting this central crisis center?"

Linda Henzman: "We asked the mayor and Wyatt Hatfield at our action in May to come up with a plan by September, and they agreed that they could do that. They also agreed to bring in an expert from San Antonio, Texas, where they have a crisis intervention center that is a model for the whole country. This expert is coming to Evansville. They agreed to bring him here. He will be consulting with that mental health commission, and we will be helping them move forward to actually make this a reality. I think by the end of this year, we're going to have some exciting news."

Brad Byrd: "Well, Linda and Tom, you're seeing a part of the community that many folks don't see by the nature of what you're doing. You're not just recording things and trying to gather stats, you're trying to do something about it. We'll continue to talk to you about this. I appreciate you coming out tonight. We could go on, but unfortunately we can't at this hour. But again, thank you very much joining us and please keep us posted on the progress."

(This story was originally published on July 19, 2017)


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