Changes coming to Fairfax Co. jail after death of mentally ill inmate

WASHINGTON — After the death of a Fairfax County inmate diagnosed with schizophrenia, jail officials are increasing psychiatric services and adding training to better respond to and care for mentally ill inmates.

Natasha McKenna, a 37-year-old diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression in addition to schizophrenia, died in February after a brutal and long struggle with deputies who were trying to get her into a chair so she could be transported to the Alexandria jail. During the struggle, she was shocked with a stun gun four times. The Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the sheriff’s deputies who were involved in the incident.

“Jails were not designed to be psychiatric hospitals that’s what they‘ve become,” says Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid.

Yet 40 percent of her jail population, which holds about 1,130 inmates daily, suffer from some form of mental illness. And many of those same inmates also suffer from substance addiction, which complicates treatment and their detention, Kincaid says.

The sheriff is pushing for a diversion program, which would send the mentally ill, not to jail, but to a facility where they could get the treatment they desperately need, she says.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy for people to pay attention to the treatment we need to provide for individuals suffering from mental illness,” says Kincaid.

More of her deputies will also receive crisis intervention training, which helps them to better understand and react appropriately to the mentally ill. She says within the next year, a quarter of her deputies will have received the specialized training.

Kincaid says they will have jail staff on each shift who is a trained Crisis Intervention Team member. Fairfax County police are receiving similar training as well.

The sheriff says a telepsychiatry service has been added at the jail. Before the telepsychiatry service, a psychiatrist was only available eight hours a week at the jail.

“Now we’ll be able to have access to a psychiatrist for our jail 24/7,” says Kincaid.

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