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Natrona County approves purchase of padded jail cell amid ‘uptick’ in mental health crisis and backlog at state hospital

Natrona County Sheriff John Harlin (left) and Commissioner Rob Hendry at a commissioner work session Nov 2, 2021 (Gregory Hirst)

CASPER, Wyo. — Amid what Natrona County Sheriff John Harlin described as “an uptick in the mental health crisis component of the inmate population,” the county commission has approved Harlin’s request for the purchase of a padded holding cell at the Natrona County Detention Center (NCDC). 

Harlin told the commission at a work session Tuesday, January 18 that there had been 122 use-of-force incidents at the detention center. 79% of those were in one of eight holding cell areas where all new intakes are coming in, and where there is “the highest occurrence” of people that are experiencing a mental health crisis or the acute effects of substance abuse.

Under “that excited state,” inmates will hit their heads on concrete walls and doors, and on stainless steel plumbing fixtures. 

“A lot of our use-of-force incidents develop because we have a duty to prevent inmates from harming themselves,” Harlin said. “It would be very useful to have a padded cell.”

“I would … echo the sheriff’s position that this is needed,” Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson said. 

Nelson said that the Wyoming Behavioral Institute and other similar facilities “won’t take anyone that has charges, certainly not anyone who is violent or out of control.”

Nelson and Harlin both said that bed space is extremely limited at the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston and that the waiting list for intakes is long due to staffing issues.

Harlin said there are 10 current inmates at NCDC that have a severe mental illness and who that are on the waiting list to go to the state hospital in Evanston.

“We won’t be able to send them out until at least April,” Harlin said. He added that detention center isn’t set up as a psychiatric facility, though there is a physician’s assistant on contract, as well as nursing staff on continual duty who are able to render short-term medical interventions.

But it’s long-term care that’s needed for these inmates, Harlin said.

“This has always been an issue in the county,” Nelson said. “There really isn’t anywhere else for them to go, so they do end up at the detention center.”

Harlin said that sheriff’s offices statewide were grappling with a similar backlog of inmates awaiting state hospital care.

Florida-based Marathon Engineering Co. provides the service for the padded cell, Harlin said, including materials and installation. Fixtures would be stripped from the cell and padded panels installed and sprayed over with a sealing liner.

A floor drain remains to accommodate biological necessities. 

The cost of the contract is $26,149.20, according to County Clerk Tracy Good.

Due to what Nelson described as the “emergent nature” of the situation, the commission agreed to foot the bill up front, but would later approach the city of Casper with a request for a 60/40 reimbursement. 

Commission Chair Paul Bertoglio said the county’s COVID relief funds would be the appropriate budget line for earmarking payment, as the bottleneck of patients awaiting entry to the state hospital is directly related to staffing shortages due to the spread of the virus.