A Navy veteran charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer was kept in the La Plata County Jail for almost three months after a judge ordered she be transfered to a mental health clinic.
It is just one example of a national, systemic problem of the lack of inpatient mental health beds, which by default makes jails and prisons holding facilities for people who have committed crimes but need psychological help, said Michael Tessean, deputy director for the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health.
“Colorado is not isolated, this is a growing need,” Tessean said.
Amanda Lembach, who was arrested Jan. 30 in Durango, has post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, her mother, Debbie Lembach, said in an interview with The Durango Herald. In August at the La Plata Courthouse, a judge ruled Lembach incompetent to stand trial and ordered she be transferred to a mental health care facility, according to court officials.
Lembach suffered for months without medications, her mother said. Debbie Lembach said she has had contact with her daughter, but the letters Amanda sent from the La Plata County Jail were incoherent.
It took more than 2½ months to transfer Lembach after the order was issued, said Capt. Ed Aber with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office declined to release the exact date of her transfer and where she was taken, citing privacy issues.
Aber said the problem does not originate with the Sheriff’s Office; rather, there is a lack of beds for inpatient treatment at mental health care facilities in Colorado.
“Jails are full of people with mental health issues. The prisons are filled with people with mental health issues,” Aber said. “There just aren’t enough beds around the state to address the needs.”
The closest state-run, inpatient treatment facility that can house court-ordered patients is the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, which has 449 beds, according to the Department of Human Services. Lembach was transfered there, her mother said. There is a backlog of patients needing court-ordered mental health care in Colorado, said Nourie Boraie, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.
The number of inmates involuntarily transferred to mental health facilities has risen by an average of 19 percent each year since 2000, according to the Department of Human Services. In fiscal year 2000-01, 87 people were transferred to inpatient mental health care. This past fiscal year, 725 people were transferred to inpatient mental health care.
As of October, eight people in custody at the La Plata County Jail had been ordered to receive mental health treatment, but only about four were receiving the full level of care they needed, Aber said. That does not mean inmates lack access to care if they want it; Axis Health System helps inmates with mental illnesses through counseling and transitional services, he said.
Axis declined to comment for this story, citing privacy issues.
The ultimate authority when it comes to committing someone to a mental health facility lies with judges. It is judges who have the legal discretion to rule if someone is incompetent to face criminal proceedings or to order an evaluation of the person to determine a defendant’s competency. If found incompetent, defendants are ordered to a restoration service provided by the Department of Human Services to restore their competency so they can stand trial.
In an effort to ensure judges are making informed decisions on competency, the Office of Behavioral Health has partnered with the Colorado Judicial Branch to provide behavioral health experts to help judges better determine the care a person needs.
In 2017, the Department of Human Services received funding to add 24 high-security beds by fiscal year 2020-21. But demand is outpacing supply, said Maria Livingston, spokeswoman for the Office of Behavioral Health.
The number of beds for inpatient mental health care nationwide has plummeted almost 97 percent since 1955, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness.
“If the court detains a pre-trial defendant who is incompetent in jail and orders restoration services to occur at CMHIP (Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo), that defendant will wait in jail until CMHIP has an open bed for that patient, unless the court allows the defendant to bond out at that time,” Livingston wrote in an email to the Herald. “CDHS is doing its utmost to serve all incompetent pre-trial defendants as fast as it can.”