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A jail-diversion unit opened in Spokane three months ago: How effective has it been?

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 24, 2022

Ariane Schmidt, regional project manager for the city of Spokane and Spokane County gives a tour to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, on left and Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney of the new Spokane Regional Rehabilitation Center run by Pioneer Health Services on Sept. 13, 2021. The facility is Spokane County’s first true pre-booking jail diversion option for eligible individuals, and the first in Washington state to offer a full range of medical, mental health, and substance use treatment services all at a single location.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Ariane Schmidt, regional project manager for the city of Spokane and Spokane County gives a tour to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, on left and Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney of the new Spokane Regional Rehabilitation Center run by Pioneer Health Services on Sept. 13, 2021. The facility is Spokane County’s first true pre-booking jail diversion option for eligible individuals, and the first in Washington state to offer a full range of medical, mental health, and substance use treatment services all at a single location. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When county officials in September cut the ribbon and opened a unique jail diversion unit in Spokane, they expressed hope it would serve as an another option for people in crisis.

Three months later, the 24-hour Spokane Regional Stabilization Unit has served hundreds and filled the gaps in what law enforcement could do when they see someone in crisis, said Sgt. Jay Kernkamp with Spokane Police Department’s Behavioral Health Unit.

“A lot of times, the jails are full. The emergency rooms are full,” Kernkamp said. “It takes law enforcement a long time to sit in the waiting rooms, sometimes hours, and having a facility like this is a huge benefit to the community to where it saves officers time. It’s a warm, safe environment for individuals experiencing crisis.”

People who go to the center can get medication, housing services or a place to sleep while they suffer the physically exhausting effects of withdrawals, said Dan Sigler, regional director with Pioneer Health Services, one of the community partners heading the stabilization center’s operations.

The stabilization unit is not yet operating at full capacity due to a lack of staff, which is nothing new in the larger behavioral health industry, Sigler said.

As of January the unit can serve 25 to 30 people at one time, he said. A staff of around 30 cycle shifts to ensure the unit is open 24 hours a day, Sigler said.

The staff includes a “multidisciplinary team” of clinicians, social workers and treatment providers who already have been trained in mental health and substance use disorders, Sigler said.

An average day at the center sees about 20 people who come through for a variety of reasons, Sigler said.

Since Dec. 1, 129 people have used the center, Kernkamp said.

At its full capacity, the center would be able to fill 16 beds for stabilization, 16 beds for substance use disorders, and 16 beds for co-occurring disorders like a combination of mental health and substance use disorder, Kernkamp said.

The center works on a voluntary basis, Kernkamp said. People can come and go any time, and police cannot force someone to go to the unit.

Sigler said they have seen a wide spectrum of people, some who stay for two days and some who stay for 30.

Medicaid and Medicare cover two weeks in the facility, Kristen Gable, senior consultant at Sapere Consulting who helped complete the unit, said in September during the ribbon-cutting opening.

“You just learn along the way that sometimes it’s just one thing,” Sigler said. “And that one thing could completely change the trajectory for a person having spent years on the streets and then in and out of a hospital or maybe even jail.”

It’s too early to tell whether the stabilization unit has caused any noticeable decrease in mental health calls or wellness checks the Spokane police have responded to since it opened in October, Kernkamp said.

Overall, Kernkamp said, behavioral health calls have increased since the pandemic started and has stretched officer resources thin.

“The reality is law enforcement has dealt with mental health and has been dealing with crisis for years and years,” Kernkamp said. “And we’re always trying to improve and to get better, but … mandated therapy is a huge need. If you want these individuals to be living independently, they also need to be mandated to get help so that they can not be in and out of the system and draw upon the services that others need.”

The center is not for people who are suspected of committing a crime, Kernkamp said. Even if someone experiences substance or alcohol use disorder when they break a window or assault someone, Kernkamp said police have to arrest first and offer treatment later.

Instead, the unit is directed at helping people who cause public disturbances because of their untreated mental illness or substance use disorder but have not committed a crime, Kernkamp said.

Jail-diversion programs to help people get out of addiction are backed by research, said Michael McDonell, a clinical psychologist and a substance abuse researcher at Washington State University.

“People have thought about substance use disorders as a moral failing that needs to be rectified with moral solutions,” McDonell said. “And we’ve known for a long time that the sciences show something differently.”

Substance use disorders have long been considered a medical problem because of how addiction “hijacks” the brain’s reward pathways, he said.

Those with a substance use disorder, especially when that substance is heroin or fentanyl, are at their most likely to die of an overdose when they just get out of jail, McDonell said.

When they leave jail, McDonell said, their tolerances are much lower and they return to the same environment that may have encouraged drug or alcohol abuse. And when those substances include heroin or fentanyl, chances of relapse and overdose skyrocket, he said.

“The stabilization center, for instance, is a great thing because it puts people in a place where they can access care right away, as opposed to a jail where it’s very hard for them to access the care they need,” McDonell said.

Sigler said he hoped this center would get those who need it in a stable place before offering long-term solutions like access to a doctor or housing.

“We’re really just giving people a safe place to help get some stability,” he said. “It could be for mental health, substance use and relational support system, just being a safe place to do that. We’re really working very hard to connect people with a supportive community before, so that they can feel good about what comes next.”

The center is located at 1302 W. Gardener Ave. and is open all day every day.

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