With long wait times to get into the limited number of beds at the Lincoln Regional Center, men and women with mental illnesses often end up in the Lancaster County jail.

Briefly holding someone at the jail isn’t new, as people have long been booked before being transported to the regional center later that day. But the length of time those committed spend in jails statewide awaiting a bed to open up has grown significantly in recent years.

Now, the average wait for a civil commitment in the state is around 70 days, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services told the Journal Star. Half of those with competency orders transferred from the jail to the regional center spent more than 80 days incarcerated before getting into the psychiatric hospital.

That wait time is simply too long.

Much-needed changes are on the horizon, with a new unit for civil commitments expected to open early next year. The transfer of some sex offenders from the regional center to an affiliated state facility in Norfolk has helped ease wait times for one of the 250 beds at the Lincoln Regional Center.

Still, in the span of a couple months, these men and women are missing out on programs that could “help individuals stabilize and return to live in the community,” the mission of the regional center.

In many cases, the crimes committed by these people are related to their mental illnesses. Without the level of care provided at the regional center, however, those on the wait list are often left to linger in a jail that can’t fully meet their needs, as guards can’t force inmates to take their medicine despite paranoia, hallucinations or antisocial behavior.

Jail officials have relayed anecdotes of men and women with mental illnesses being physically hostile to guards or eating their own feces – all while they’re unable to provide answers to help the jail’s mental health staff to better serve themselves. These facilities aren’t equipped to deal with such severe cases.

"Here, I have little choice other than house them in a 9-by-10 cell, and that type of housing tends to exacerbate their mental health issues," said Brad Johnson, the jail director.

Inmate populations contain a far larger percentage of people with mental illness, chemical dependency and such conditions than the general public. The jails and prisons that hold them are not designed to be inpatient treatment facilities, despite their seemingly de facto position as such.

Officials are taking important steps to get these men and women into state treatment faster. They know months-long stays in county jail aren’t the proper course of action, and the sooner these can be shortened, the better Nebraska’s mentally can be served.

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