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Anderson County is addressing its jail issues with mental health care

Engin Akyurt
Anderson County is trying to untangle some old-school thinking about criminal justice, bureaucracy, and treatment of inmates. An in-design mental health court could steer dozens away from a revolving door of arrest, detention, repeat, and an in-design jail could also address mental health issues for those who end up there.

Anderson County built a jail in the 1950s that looks and feels exactly like a jail built in the 1950s. It’s not adequate to withstand the pressures of the kind of population growth the county has seen in the past 12 years and it certainly wasn’t designed to treat the mental health crises of its inmates.

So when County Sheriff’s Capt. David Baker says he’s “super excited” to see the new detention center design coming along, he means it. The new jail – currently in the design phase and, if all goes according to plan, set to open in 2026 – is one of the “many new things that are happening here in Anderson that are just going to be so good for us,” Baker says.

And why a new jail is going to be so good for the county, he says, is because it’s being designed to reduce overcrowding and have separate areas to treat mental health concerns among inmates.

It’s also an adjunct to something else under construction in Anderson County – a mental health court, which, according to Baker and to County Administrator Rusty Burns, will be a way to handle low-level crimes, like trespassing or petty theft, by seeing to the mental health needs of those who commit those crimes.

Often, Baker says, people who commit such small-time crimes do so in reaction to a life that’s become hard for them to take. They’re not hardened criminals; many, in fact, have substance or housing issues and need help, not the same time and experience in jail as some others, he says.

And Anderson County is maybe in more need of ways to address the mental health of its residents than most place in the state.

“In 2020, among all 46 counties in South Carolina, Anderson County had the highest rate of deaths attributable to schizophrenia, delusional disorders, mood effective disorders, behavioral disorders, and intentional self-harm,” says Steve Newton, Anderson County’s director of governmental affairs. “I really don't have an explanation.”

Newton’s inability to find any reason why Anderson County led the field in all those numbers is understandable. The county is not unique in being a growing metro area in South Carolina; its economy has been good; and it’s been considered one of the best places in South Carolina to live and retire. So exactly why its rates of self-harm and mental illness are so high stymies Newton.

“I can't think of anything intrinsic to this community that would lead to these types of numbers.”

Nevertheless, Newton is aware of them, and says that learning to accept that Anderson County has some serious issues to address is part of the solution from the criminal justice side. But so is what he calls an unprecedented amount of cooperation between agencies and departments in the county to look at addressing the mental health and safety needs of the community holistically.

“The back and forth between County Administration, County Council, and the Sheriff’s Office [is] going to be a function of the relationship that these bodies all have,” Newton says. “We have developed a good relationship with the Sheriff's Office, with South Carolina Department of Mental Health, with the 10th Circuit Solicitor, with the Public Defender's Office, with the 10th Circuit judge and the Circuit Court here, because we make an effort to talk to and communicate to one another.”

That’s not always been the case, Newton admits. Like many multi-department entities, Anderson County’s separate agencies and offices have tended to work in silos. He and Capt. Baker see that as another relic in need of replacing, like the current 65 -year-old jail.

But one other important relic to replace is the old-school way of thinking of mental health as a taboo topic, or worse, one that is incompatible with public safety. Both gentlemen say it’s time to understand that addressing mental health concerns among those who pass through the county’s criminal justice system is an important aspect of public safety.

“We're not afraid to talk about [mental health] anymore here in Anderson County,” Newton says. “We're not afraid to talk about a problem like this because we know it's there, but we also know that we have got the strength and resiliency as a community to find whatever solutions we may can.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.