Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.
A new hire for the Denver Sheriff Department hopes to increase the focus on mental health in the Denver prison system, one of Colorado’s largest mental health providers.
“To really make some changes to the system and focus on treating these people, we need someone at this level who is able to drive that strategy and change forward,” says Nikki Johnson, a clinical psychologist who started out January the chief of the mental health department.
The position was created by Elias Diggins, a longtime member of the Denver Sheriff Department who was named sheriff by Mayor Michael Hancock in July 2020.
“I believe that creating an executive position to oversee all mental health services is an absolute priority. The idea was born after discussions with the mayor’s office, city council, security director, internal DSD employee and community members, ”says Diggins.
Johnson has spent much of her career connecting mental health and correctional facilities, most recently as the director of mental health at the Jefferson County Detention Facility in Golden. Her new position marks the first time a senior department position will focus on mental health in Denver prisons, which will be taken over by Denver Health Clinics.
“I think this is a paradigm shift in general, but I think it also poses challenges for me in my position, really helping to get sworn staff approval to really make a difference,” said Johnson. who notes that the best way to get this approval from MPs is to build relationships between civilian staff and MPs. “We all have to value each other and work together so that the department and the detainees get home safely, even at night.”
Johnson has already identified three main areas of focus: creating a proficiency recovery program in the Denver County Jail, establishing a crisis response team, and ensuring the sheriff’s department adheres to best practices regarding mental health services.
The Denver prison system is the second largest mental health provider in the state after the Colorado Department of Corrections. The average population in the system for the past seven days was 1,363, with 1,022 inmates housed in the Downtown Detention Center and the remainder in the Denver County Jail. These numbers represent a significant decrease from times without a pandemic.
As of March 31, 61 percent of inmates in the system had a past or current mental health alert, which means they had or are currently taking mental health medication, were previously or currently undergoing psychiatric treatment, or have been hospitalized for a mental health in the past Problem. At the same time, 37 percent of the inmates received psychotropic drugs and 22 percent antipsychotics. Many of these inmates were homeless before ending up in the system.
Nikki Johnson is now the director of mental health services for the Denver Sheriff’s Department.
Courtesy of the Denver Sheriff Department
Some of the most common mental health problems faced by inmates are “hallucinations or delusions or some degree of disorganization in their thinking,” PTSD, which manifests itself in anxiety or depression, and mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder, Johnson said.
The proficiency recovery program will reserve twelve beds in Denver County Jail for those who are judged incapable of standing by the court. Denver Prison, as well as others around the state, typically send people who are not considered to be able to stand trial to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. For the Denver County Jail Program, a pilot that will begin this spring, such individuals will continue to be considered under the care of the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health, but will remain in Denver.
Between August 2020 and January 2021, the state recorded 915 cases of a person being declared incapable of standing; Denver dealt with 169 of them. For the small pilot program, the department will prioritize people who are “relatively stable mentally and behaviorally,” says Johnson.
“We’re looking for people who are either already on medication or who may be retarded, who don’t necessarily need medication, and who are able to manage adequately in prison compared to a hospital,” she explains.
The number of defendants found unfit for trial has increased nearly ten-fold in Colorado over the past two decades; Johnson attributes this to the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities in the mid-20th century.
Johnson also plans to set up a crisis response team that dispatches around the clock mental health workers to the Downtown Detention Center and Denver County Jail so a clinician can assist alternates in responding to crises involving serious mental illness.
“For the Crisis Response Team, ideally, we would see a decrease in the use of violence for those with severe mental illness, this more therapeutic type of relationship versus the us-versus-you mentality that often comes with a corrective situation,” says Johnson. The Denver Sheriff Department is not yet sure when this program will start, she adds.
Johnson also plans to review all behavioral health services in prisons to ensure the system is in line with best practices.
Denver City Council representative Paul Kashmann, chairman of the Security, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee, says he has long believed it important that the sheriff’s department “take a broader approach to the treatment of the mentally ill in their own right Custody pursued “. [issues], “adding,” I look forward to the major changes that Dr. Johnson suggested. “
Johnson’s success in the role would be of great benefit to the Hancock administration, which has gone through several sheriffs, some of whom were at the helm when there were violent deaths in custody.
For example, in 2015 Michael Marshall, a homeless inmate of the Downtown Detention Center who was arrested for trespassing, died as a result of the use of violence by MPs while Marshall was going through a mental crisis. The city of Denver eventually paid Marshall’s family $ 4.65 million in a settlement.
Marshall’s death came five years after the death of Marvin Booker, a homeless man who was jailed on a drug possession warrant and a victim of excessive MP violence. Denver eventually paid out $ 6 million in a comparison to that incident.
Denver is one of only two counties in Colorado that have an appointed sheriff rather than an elected sheriff. The mayor-appointed sheriff reports to both the mayor and the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, another mayor-appointed mayor. The next sheriff and other key mayors require the approval of the council, according to a move referred to voters by the Denver city council and approved last November.
Aside from her three main pre-projects, Johnson hopes to work with public safety “to create more rerouting programs so that these people don’t come under our custody in the first place,” she says.
And she also wants to make sure that Denver “puts these people in the least restrictive environment,” Johnson concludes. “Some of these will have to do with training and educating our sworn staff about the different types of mental health symptoms they see in individuals and how best to deal with these situations.”
Keeping Westword Free … Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we want it to stay that way. We offer our readers free access to concise coverage of local news, food and culture. We produce stories about everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with bold coverage, stylish writing, and staff who have won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award to the Casey Medal for the Deserving Journalism. But with the existence of local journalism under siege and the setbacks in advertising revenues having a bigger impact, it is now more important than ever for us to raise funds to fund our local journalism. You can help by joining our “I Support” membership program, which allows us to continue to cover Denver without paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh works for Westword where he covers a range of topics including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves talking about New York sports.