Addressing lack of mental health resources for Wisconsin inmates

Posted: Thu 10:36 PM, Mar 14, 2019
By WEAU Staff

CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. (WEAU) — Governor Tony Evers’ recent budget proposal includes expanding services to Wisconsin inmates with mental health needs.
He says the goal is to improve public safety by reducing recidivism among inmates with major mental health conditions.

Evers’ new budget proposal would expand a statewide program called Opening Avenues to Reentry Success, known as “Oars”. The program focuses on providing mental health resources to inmates considered at risk of re-offending.

Behavioral health officials say addressing mental health issues is important – especially for an incarcerated individual. “If we don’t have services in jail–we’re not going to reduce recidivism, we’re not going to reduce further crimes by locking them up and throwing away the key- we need to rehabilitate these people so that when they are released they can become productive citizens in our society,” said Corina Fisher, Psychologist at L.E. Phillips Libertas Treatment Center in Chippewa Falls.

Fisher says when it comes to rehabilitation for inmates, mental health should be a priority. “Mental health has to be an important component for rehabilitation–if a person is able to find a job once they’re released but their mental health hasn’t been improved, they’re not going to maintain that employment,” said Fisher.

Governor Evers’ new budget proposal includes plans to expand state resources for offenders with mental health issues, a move local officials say is needed.

“They’re not going to get better without the services necessary,” said Fisher. Officials at the Chippewa County Jail say they often encounter offenders with mental health issues.

“Our jail has the capacity of 200 inmates. Our daily average is 130. Of those 130 I think daily we deal with inmates–female inmates, male inmates with some type of mental illness,” said Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk. He said this can be a challenge for law enforcement and resources are limited.

“This last weekend we had four situations where we had to detain a person in a padded cell–we did a couple of commitments–that all takes time and effort,” said Kowalczyk.

He adds that unfortunately, lack of mental health resources for inmates eventually leads them right back behind bars.

Kowalczyk says he is seeing more and more mental health issues in the jail today than he did more than a decade ago when he first became sheriff.

Last year more than 300 inmates took part in the state’s mental health program. The governor’s budget proposal includes funding that would allow an additional 225 inmates to participate.

Oars is offered in Adams, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Portage, Shawano, and Wood Counties.