Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee is desperate to get one 66-year-old mentally ill man out of his jail.
The sheriff, who has run the department for 16 years, has called politicians, state officials and, now, the news media in the past month to highlight the growing statewide crisis for mentally ill people in jail who are waiting for a transfer to a facility offering state-level treatment.
“I think this is going to be the next fight, that these people who have pretty minor charges but the big issue is mental illness that are in our jails,” McKee said. “I think that's the next fight that will have to be overcome in our jails.”
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The man in his jail now, who McKee declined to name, has been in and out of trouble in Delta County for more than two decades, McKee said. When he is stable and on medication, he is able to stay with his aging mother. When he goes off his medications, he becomes violent and threatening. His family members have taken out restraining orders against him.
But the man’s latest stint in jail, McKee said, has been the toughest. The man is very sick. Beyond outbursts and threats, he has spread feces all over his jail cell, requiring the sheriff to call in a biohazard clean-up crew to deal with the mess.
McKee said his deputies aren’t trained, and didn’t sign up for, this kind of work.
“I think he's the kind of guy that under certain circumstances could very seriously injure someone. Yeah, he's a dangerous man, I'm not making any excuses for that,” he said. “He is a dangerous man. He gets worse under the circumstances and conditions we have him in.”
The man has been there for weeks with no word on when he will be moved to a hospital. McKee’s staffers have called psychiatric facilities all over the state to find a hospital bed for him. All say they are full.
He is now officially on the waitlist for a slot at the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Pueblo. Disability advocates estimate almost 200 mentally ill people have been waiting for longer than a month, in jail before being convicted of anything, for a state-run bed.
State officials say they don’t have the capacity to meet the spiking demand. The state has been hauled to court four times in the last decade over this issue. Just a few weeks ago, disability advocates argued before a federal judge that the state wasn’t meeting the requirements set by a previous court settlement to help get sick people moved out of jail within a month of being deemed incompetent to stand trial.
McKee said he doubts anyone in the hospital is sicker than this man.
He pointed out that if the man was suffering from a heart attack, he would have been transferred to a hospital weeks ago.