North Carolina's first behavioral health unit opens in Charlotte jail

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina’s first behavioral health unit inside a jail just opened Thursday in Charlotte.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden unveiled the new facility to a full crowd, including Congresswoman Alma Adams, County Commissioners Susan Harden, Mark Jerell, Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, and City Councilman Larken Egleston.

The unit has been planned for four months after city and county leaders pushed for improved mental health treatment for inmates.

“We recognized that we had an issue with mental illness in our population here at the jail. And, we decided to do something about it,” Sgt. Charles Pearson said.

The room was a housing unit converted for the program.

Previously, the jail only had a small mental health staff to treat dozens of people with various issues.

“We wanted to open up a unit just for them,” Pearson said.

Now, they have more room and options.

The Sheriff’s Office partnered with Wellpath to provide psychiatrists and medications to inmates who need them. They also have access to anger management and cognitive behavior classes, and even yoga.

The unit can hold up to 28 people and the inmates are evaluated based on need. However, the sheriff said they’ll quickly outgrow it.

“We need more space, we’re going to need more staff, we’re going to need clinical people, doctors coming in,” McFadden said.

The end goal is to get the inmates ready to succeed once they’re released.

“We can provide stabilization here but if we don’t do anything to establish care once they leave here, then what we’ve done here is possibly forgotten,” said Tom Sybesma of Wellpath

All the funding for this new facility comes from the money already approved for the sheriff’s budget. However, the sheriff said he is prepared to ask for financial support from county commissioners as the program expands.

The National Alliance of Mental Health estimates that nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have serious mental health conditions.

Although this unit is designated for men, the Sheriff’s Office expects to open a separate unit for women in the future.