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County Jail: Largest Mental Health Provider in N.M.

my_southborough via Creative Commons
Creative Commons

Bernalillo County jail Chief Ramon Rustin’s resignation took effect Monday. After three years as the head of the largest jail in New Mexico, Rustin stepped down saying he needed to meet family obligations. 

KUNM spoke with Rustin in February about mental health care at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

  Jail staff says MDC is the largest mental health provider in the state. Chief Rustin agreed. In fact, Rustin put that as No. 2 on the list of problems at the Bernalillo County lockup. So what's No. 1? Overcrowding, he said.

And it’s no surprise that those two issues are intertwined. Rustin said if there were more community treatment programs, the jail population would decrease. He added that people wouldn’t be arrested because they’re in crisis, and taxpayers would save money.

When we spoke on Feb. 12, he said that week, 41 percent of the inmates at MDC were taking psychotropic medications to combat mental health conditions—and that's about the norm. He estimated that half of the jail’s medical budget goes to diagnosing and treating mental illness. "Families understand—and individuals who get treatment understand—that when all else fails, you always have jail," he said.

Rustin said mentally ill inmates are more expensive for the jail because they require a higher level of care. MDC has six psychiatrists on staff, along nurses, case workers and discharge planners. But, Rustin said, the Metropolitan Detention Center is meant to serve as just one thing: a jail. 

Look for stories on incarceration, solitary confinement and mental health next week at publichealthnm.org.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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