Nashville sheriff offers mentally ill an alternative to jail

The Behavior Care Center is reshaping how the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office helps people who are having psychotic episodes


By Corrections1 Staff

Sheriff Daron Hall of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee noticed an increase in people suffering from mental illness who also faced charges within the criminal justice system in Nashville.

After speaking to community stakeholders, he realized that local jails were becoming mental health institutions. He embraced the opportunity to change that and also wanted to offer these individuals a new way to communicate with loved ones that would provide more privacy than in a correctional setting.

The Behavior Care Center in Nashville aims to decriminalize mental illness and to help prevent these individuals from becoming a statistic in increasing the incarcerated population.
The Behavior Care Center in Nashville aims to decriminalize mental illness and to help prevent these individuals from becoming a statistic in increasing the incarcerated population.

Sheriff Daron Hall took funds to build what leaders in his community felt was needed – another jail – and used that money to build a mental healthcare facility, the Behavior Care Center (BCC) in Nashville.

“The individuals who are being brought down here historically would have been arrested and then literally taken through the process,” said Hall. “Instead, we send them to the hands of mental health. In 10 to 20 years, my hope is that Nashville and other cities like it, don’t use the criminal justice system for mental health cases.”

Hall explains that he used available funds and built a facility that he feels better serves the community.

“I gave up on trying to convince politicians and other people that we need the money to build a mental healthcare facility, and I said, ‘Give me the money to build a jail’ because that was what they wanted, but we built what we needed,” said Hall.

He says that the BCC has given his agency a chance to reshape the way they help people who are having psychotic episodes.

Construction on the BCC was finished in early 2020, but due to COVID, the pilot program started in October. The building is a separate facility from the jail with a different address and can house 30 men and 30 women. This separation is important since the goal is to make the facility feel like a treatment center, not a jail.

Communication is key

Communication is an important part of that strategy, so the sheriff turned to Securus Technologies for a solution. Securus offers its tablets as a digital tool that allows individuals who are being treated in the BCC to connect with their loved ones from the privacy of their rooms. The Securus phone app on the tablet makes this possible while offering safety and security for the facility.

Additionally, the ability to have the phones in their rooms instead of having a shared hallway phone allows for social distancing during COVID to help prevent the spread of the pandemic.

Hall’s mission with the BCC is to decriminalize mental illness and to help prevent these individuals from becoming a statistic in increasing the incarcerated population.

”I don’t think you should have to go to jail for not taking your mental health medication,” he shared. “Our country historically has incarcerated because one’s brain or mental side is damaged. Therefore, we use the criminal justice system to fix that, and it’s never worked.”

Decriminalizing mental illness

Decriminalizing mental illness begins with how the individuals are treated. They are no longer called “inmates” or “officers.” Instead, the population is referred to as “patients” and “technicians.” The BCC is a complete treatment center designed as a therapeutic model.

“It’s called a behavioral care center so if your loved one happens to be in contact with criminal justice, and the person is diagnosed as mentally ill, we want you to come to the BCC and help get them on their feet instead of going to jail where they’ll be humiliated and dealing with the collateral damage of being arrested,” said Hall.

BCC Admission guidelines

However, there are strict guidelines to being accepted in the BCC. The patients cannot be charged with victim-based crimes. Patients feel more at home here since their rooms are not locked, but the facility however is locked. The residents stay a maximum of 30 days as part of their agreement. Hall states the mental health community feels it can get a release plan established for the patients and then hand them off to a loved one who offers a strong chance of success for the released individual. The patient’s contract states that no individual will be allowed to leave alone. Hall feels strongly that this process is an effective alternative to jail.

Long-term benefits

He reflects on the correctional system where he has over 20 years of experience. “One of my pet peeves has been when we release someone who we know has been diagnosed with mental illness, what that means for most jails is you served your time,” he explained. “Then the door opens, and we push you out. We hand you some medication and wish you luck. The odds of that working is virtually zero.”

Hall says the result often is those individuals go off their medication, and they are back in the system because they have no link to the community. “There’s nothing else going on. Jail is the best thing going for them,” he explained.

As a result of the care at the BCC, Hall explains that patients realize they need help and admit it. They give feedback that the center allowed them to get assistance and comfortably talk about their challenges.

“Jails aren’t designed to do that. The benefits of the BCC to the individuals are long-term. It also benefits the community,” said Hall.

He adds that the BCC offers a service to the jail, which then does not have to deal with the challenges of the mentally ill. 

“It’s a win, win, win for the patient, the community and the jail. It has so much potential, and we are looking forward to the future,” said Hall.

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