Breaking the Bars: What Mental Health Services Look Like at Doña Ana County Detention Center


In a renovated block at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, Jason Duran and his team of mental health specialists work to serve the 71% of inmates who need care.

“A lot of our patients didn’t get any care until they came here with us,” Duran said. “That’s why our mission is to continue to provide the same level of care that anyone would receive.”

45% of people seen by Duran’s nine-person team rely on a combination of medication and counselling, with the remaining 55% using only counseling services. According to Corizon Health, the organization contracted by the county to provide mental health care, no one receives medication for their mental health needs without some form of counselling.

The high number of people requiring mental health care while incarcerated is a trend seen in the United States. According to a US Department of Justice report, 44% of inmates in prisons had some type of previously diagnosed mental health disorder, higher than the 37% seen in state and federal prisons.

Duran highlighted a trend of those in his care who suffered large amounts of physical and emotional trauma.

“We see people with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,” Duran said. “And a lot of our patients also have a substance abuse disorder. I think one factor that affects virtually all prisoners is exposure to trauma. Thus, whatever the diagnosis of a patient, his current experience is expressed through the traumas he has suffered.

Corizon Health CEO Sara Tirschwell said the hardest part of treating individuals in systems like the Doña Ana County Detention Center is that their mental health needs were largely ignored before the incarceration.

“Why did a county jail in New Mexico become a de facto psychiatric hospital? Why?” said Tirschwell. “Because we, at some point, decided that we weren’t going to provide a safety net for people and give them the mental health treatment they need.”

Duran says his team sees many former patients returning to the detention center, despite efforts to connect individuals to resources.

Micah Pearson, executive director of the Southern New Mexico branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is working with Doña Ana County to find solutions. In a longer conversation about mental health, Pearson told KRWG, NAMI Southern New Mexico is in the final stages of negotiating with the county to provide peer navigation services.

“My favorite program that we are working with the county to implement is Peer Navigation Services, which is independent of any particular behavioral health provider, a team of people who will go meet a client where they are and do a needs assessment,” says Pearson. “We watch that person, we make sure they get from point A to point B. We see everything that’s going on.”

While there aren’t enough resources at the county level to fund Pearson’s entire proposal, he says the next step is to seek other sources of funding.

“Everyone says we need something, but nobody wants to pay for it. And the county really wants to pay for it,” Pearson said. “They just don’t have those funds. But like, that’s the thing. Everyone says it’s important. No one really wants to put their name on the checkbook. And partly because it requires rethinking the system. And in some cases, you’re taking money out of some budgets and putting it into another.”

Pearson notes that the city of Las Cruces could be a potential source of funding, but conversations have yet to take place.

And NAMI Southern New Mexico is not the only entity working to implement change. Corizon Health says they are advocating this year to expand their Release With Care initiative nationwide. Corizon Health CEO Sara Tirschwell says Doña Ana County is one of the areas they are looking to expand the current program into.

“What this initiative does is for addicts, we give them a five-day supply of medication,” Tirschwell said. they actually need this medicine.

Above all, those like Duran, who work at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, want the community to understand that while big changes are needed to provide better mental health treatment nationwide, it’s the small victories that matter most to staff.

“What motivates me is knowing that the work we do within the detention center is helping to improve lives,” Duran said. “And it helps improve those people that others might overlook. When we have our little wins, it means a lot, because little little wins, over time, add up to huge accomplishments.

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