The mental health unit at the Summit County Jail is quiet.

Most of the inmates assigned here — the worst of the worst when it comes to mental illness — are still sleeping at 9 a.m. thanks to the heavy-duty psychotropic drugs taken the night before.

A few are huddled around two televisions. One inmate sits no more than a foot from the screen intently watching a crime drama with a high-speed car chase.

The inmates will start stirring and leaving their cells a bit before lunchtime, Deputy Christopher Plance says. There’s no need to wake them early.

Who would want to wake up to this: 10-by-7 foot cells, vanilla-colored concrete walls, sky blue railings, gray concrete floor, steel doors, stainless-steel picnic-like tables and seating in the common area, chain-link fencing to prevent inmates from jumping from a second-floor landing, and a common shower.

Then there’s the smell, a slight mixture of sweat, urine and feces.

In the middle of the dormitory-style pod is a glass-enclosed “outdoor” area, where inmates and even staff can escape to gulp fresh air and look up to see the sky through fencing.

The Beacon Journal asked to spend time inside the mental health unit following Sheriff Drew Alexander’s mandate Feb. 13 that the jail no longer accept violent mentally ill people brought to the facility by area police until they are first treated. This policy is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The jail has turned away two people already.

Since governments have closed mental hospitals, jails have become a dumping ground for the mentally ill — people who require significant treatment, as opposed to being stuck in a cell, the sheriff says. The Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association have concluded that jails and prisons have become America’s new mental hospitals.

Just because the jail is no longer accepting violent mentally ill inmates, that doesn’t mean they won’t turn violent once inside.

The tour

With the unit calm, Plance — the only deputy assigned inside the pod to watch over about 24 inmates — is able to offer a brief tour. He can’t spend too much time away from his station, though.

One of the inmates, who has to wear a thick, odd-looking green wrap that can’t be torn and fastened into a noose, is on suicide watch and has to be checked on every 10 minutes. Sometimes, there are multiple people on suicide watch. But there’s only one today.

Plance opens one of the vacant cells to show the interior. Some have porcelain sinks and toilets, while others have stainless steel. This cell reeks of urine. There’s also a feces odor outside one of the others. Despite a thorough cleaning, the smell lingers.

Plance, who has worked in the mental health unit for about nine years and previously did the same work at the Stark County Jail, says the odors don’t bother him as much anymore, if he notices them at all. But he does admit that, after work, he changes clothes in his garage before going into his house.

Thanks to the concrete and openness of the pod, everything echoes. Conversations. Footsteps. The television. Toilets flushing. Doors closing. Hands pounding on cell doors. Screaming.

The men’s mental health unit is known as 1-D. (There’s also a women’s unit in a separate wing of the jail.)

Even though there are more than 130 inmates sprinkled throughout the jail taking some psychotropic drugs, the worst cases end up in 1-D.

Not for everyone

Most deputies don’t want to be anywhere near the mental health unit because of how unstable the inmates are. One second, they can be fine. The next, they could be urinating all over their cell or wiping feces on the wall. Or screaming and banging on their cell door. Or worse, they could be attacking another inmate or deputy.

Deputies have been hit, spat upon and bitten. Plance broke his hand during one altercation.

This is also where inmate Mark D. McCullaugh Jr. died in 2006 after a violent struggle with deputies in his cell. Since that infamous incident, the jail now videotapes each time an inmate is extracted from his or her cell, and even takes videos of inmates if they are acting up to keep a record of their behavior.

The violent inmates used to be taken to a cell with a metal cot and leather restraints. They were strapped down until they calmed down.

But the deputies are no longer using the four-point restraints after a consultant with the National Institute of Corrections recommended last month doing away with it because of injuries and deaths elsewhere.

Instead, the jail now uses a large metal chair in which violent inmates can be strapped down. The chair is on wheels and can be easily moved.

“One of our most important jobs is to keep people from harming themselves,” jail administrator Chief Gary James said while demonstrating how the chair works.

Taking volunteers

Plance, like most of the other deputies who work in the unit, volunteers to work here among the schizophrenics, those suffering from extreme paranoia and drug addicts who are whacked out of their minds.

On this particular day, there’s one guy being held for murder. Others are in for aggravated robbery, drug abuse, criminal trespass and domestic violence.

“You never really know,” Plance said. “They can wake up and have a good day. They can wake up and have a really bad day. It just depends on what’s going on.

“I like this pod because it’s a challenge. I think I have a calm enough disposition that I can talk to some of these guys and talk them down.”

The deputies become experts in picking up on signs if someone is ready to fly off the handle. One inmate who flips out can put all the others on edge.

“You just watch people and watch what they do,” Plance said.

Beware if someone starts pacing.

The inmates are all on medication. But it’s voluntary. If they don’t want to take it, they don’t.

“Usually if you give respect, you get respect,” said deputy Joey Norman, who worked in the unit for eight or nine years and is now there to help with the tour.

Ruthann Paulus-Bland, a social worker with Summit Psychological Associates, calls working with inmates her “dream job.”

“I’ve always wanted to figure out why people do what they do, I guess,” she saide between one-on-one visits with inmates in the unit. “I help them get through it. I know it’s not easy and I give them ways to make better choices.”

Still, it’s disappointing to see the same people come through the jail doors again and again, Plance and Paulus-Bland say. Inmates can spend up to 18 months in the jail, depending on how their criminal case goes. But the average stay is 17 days.

Those with serious mental illness don’t belong here, Plance says.

“For us, we’re pretty much housing them until their court [case] is completed, stabilizing them the best we can and helping them the best we can,” he said. “But really, it’s still a jail. It’s not long-term rehabilitation. It’s just a warehouse.”

The solution, Plance says, is to start funding mental hospitals and getting these people treatment.

“But then again, who pays for it?” he asked.

The dark side

It’s not easy working in the mental health unit.

Besides the physical issues — the fights, biting — it can be mentally draining for deputies. They have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and deal with people who just aren’t capable of rational thought.

The deputies are given additional crisis intervention training, but that’s not the same as being a trained psychologist. They also are provided counseling if they choose.

Those who work here are compassionate and hope they are making a difference, James says.

It’s unusually calm, he says.

Perhaps the inmates are on their best behavior with a reporter and photographer around.

They are polite and reserved. One offers to share his lunch with the photographer.

Another, though, confides to Plance that he wants to know why the media are here and what they want with him.

James doesn’t want the public to get the wrong impression and invites a reporter and photographer to his office to view some videos that show off the darker side of the unit. He has hundreds of them.

Inmates babbling nonsense. Banging on their cell doors. Smearing feces around their cell. Walking around naked. And threatening deputies.

There is one so disturbing that it stands out.

An obese, developmentally disabled woman sits on her jail cell floor. She has pounded her head into the concrete wall so hard that she left a circular red stain about the size of a baseball. Blood streams down her face.

Sheriff’s deputies stand at the cell entrance preparing to restrain her so she won’t hurt herself anymore. They plead with her to get up and sit on her bunk. But she refuses to budge.

A red dot — the light from a Taser — is trained on her chest in case she’s gets unruly.

“Tase me. Tase me. Tase me,” she yells over and over in a voice that sounds like a little girl’s.

The Taser, which wasn’t discharged, was used only as a deterrent, hoping that she would respond, James says. Deputies would never use the weapon on a developmentally disabled person, he quickly adds.

The scene is heartbreaking.

“She doesn’t belong in a jail,” James said.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.