Claims made in New Hanover County Commissioner Brian Berger’s pending probation violation case may shine a spotlight on mental health treatment for inmates in the New Hanover County jail, but officers from the sheriff’s department and detention facility maintain the issue of receiving health care as well as medication while in the jail is commonly and properly handled.
A court-ordered forensic mental evaluation determined Berger is incapable of proceeding, or assisting in his own defense. Berger’s attorney told the court Berger has not been receiving treatment during his stay in the county jail, where he has been detained since June 11, despite his probation officer’s confirmation that he did receive medication before incarceration.
During a July 22 court hearing, District Court Judge Robin Wicks Robinson requested Berger receive treatment while awaiting trial in the hope he will be restored to better health before an August hearing.
Inmates in the county jail do receive treatment, said Lt. Travis Robinson, assistant division commander with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Inmates typically receive better care in custody than on the streets, Lt. Robinson said.
“A lot of times when they get out of the system, they don’t have the opportunity to get that continued course of treatment because, No. 1, they can’t afford it,” he said during a July 22 phone interview.
All inmates undergo a health screening upon entering or reentering the county jail, which includes a mental health screening form. If an inmate tells the jail’s medical staff the name of a physician or the pharmacy that fulfills a prescription, staff will confirm the information and begin administering treatment at no expense to the inmate.
Robinson said inmates are sometimes unaware of a condition until completing the jail’s health screening. If a mental health screening reveals an issue, a contracted psychiatrist or psychologist follows up in person or by video to ensure proper treatment is received.
A quarter of inmates held in the county jail take medications for mental illness, or 130 of 535 inmates on average. Robinson said the most common mental illnesses among inmates are bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia and depression.
Some medications prescribed for those conditions are forbidden in the jail due to an inmate’s ability to hoard it and use it as a bargaining chip for favors from other inmates.
“It’s something they are supposed to take themselves, and they know it will change their body and make them act differently, so a lot of times they’ll give that to other inmates because the inmates know it will make them feel a high,” Robinson said.
Alternate medications are prescribed if an inmate’s regular medication is not allowed.
Physician’s assistants contracted through Correct Care Solutions administer medications to inmates. Medications arrive via next-day shipping from Pennsylvania-based Diamond Pharmacy, a leading pharmaceutical provider for correctional facilities.
In emergencies, prescriptions are filled by a local Rite-Aid.
Robinson said inmates who are uncooperative with medical staff may not receive needed care — but even then, staff continues to try to help.
“If a person’s uncooperative or they’re impaired to where they can’t honestly answer the questions right away, they’ll be reassessed at the earliest time to make sure nothing got missed,” Robinson said.
Vance Meanor, board member and past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Wilmington, said housing individuals with mental illness who committed minor crimes in jails or prisons does not typically offer a lasting solution for rehabilitation.
“Folks who have mental illness have an aversion to authority and discipline, and it causes them to actually have issues or problems that they might not have if they weren’t in that situation,” Meanor said during a July 29 phone interview.