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Are Mentally Ill Inmates at Denver's Main Jail Ever Put in Solitary Confinement?

A family photo of Jonathan Upah.
A family photo of Jonathan Upah.
Photo courtesy of Tom Upah
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At least two things are clear about Jonathan Upah's situation: He is currently being held in Denver's downtown detention center, and he's mentally ill. But the way that these two issues interact is very much in dispute.

Tom Upah says he's been told by his son and at least one person involved in his case that after being diagnosed, Jonathan was kept in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours each day. In contrast, Daria Serna, communications director for the Denver Sheriff Department, which oversees the jail (formal name: the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center), says there is no solitary confinement at the facility and stresses that while mentally ill inmates may be isolated in special housing units while they're in crisis if they're deemed to be dangerous, personnel make every effort to return them to regular units as soon as possible after their condition improves.

As for where, exactly, Jonathan is in the detention center, that's in flux. On August 13, after inquiries from Westword, Tom Upah, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was contacted by a Denver Sheriff Department captain who trains deputies in crisis intervention and first aid for mentally ill inmates, among other programs.

"He had my son with him," Tom recalls. "He asked my concerns and I told him. He said they put them in 23-hour lockdown until their meds kick in and they stabilize. Then he told me, 'Your son looks healthy to me.... I'm going to talk to mental health and see if we can move him out of that area.' It's amazing how they're jumping now."

Was Tom reassured by the conversation?

"Actually, the phone call made me more concerned for my son and others in that jail," Tom replies. "I think any mental patients need to be in a hospital environment. It sounded as though he is going to get Jon out of there to make the current problem and drama go away. But nothing is solved."

Solitary confinement remains one of the most controversial methods of punishment in prisons, particularly for individuals who are mentally ill, as detailed in Alan Prendergast's recent Westword cover story, "At the Federal Supermax, When Does Isolation Become Torture?" This approach isn't typically associated with city jails, where the length of time individuals are held in custody is usually much briefer. But mental illness is certainly prevalent in such facilities, as is documented in the Denver Sheriff Department's 2017 annual report, accessible below.

In the document, Serna points out, "we state that on any given day, almost 50 percent of our inmates have a mental health alert — and our average daily population is a little over 2,000."

Outside the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, commonly referred to as the downtown detention center.
Outside the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, commonly referred to as the downtown detention center.

As told by his father, Jonathan's story is all too typical.

"He's been homeless for a while, using drugs and alcohol," Tom says. "He's slightly schizophrenic — he hears voices — and has had a lot of trouble with public drinking and arrests here and there. About a year ago, he finally asked for help, and my daughters, who are in Omaha, tried to get him to voluntarily enter a facility for mental health and addiction. He agreed, but when he got out there, he decided he didn't want to go. So we had him committed, but he talked his way out of there and went back to Denver," where he'd wound up after a friend of his had put him on a bus bound for Colorado following an especially manic episode.

When Tom learned that his son had been jailed (Denver Police Department records show that Jonathan Upah was busted in late May for destruction of private property and consuming alcohol in public), he reached out to jail officials to make sure they knew about his mental condition. But when he finally was able to speak to Jonathan on the phone, he was surprised to learn that he was being held in isolation for all but one hour per day.

"I said, 'What did you do wrong?'" Tom recalls. "He said he didn't do anything wrong — though he did say someone wanted to beat him up, so they wanted to keep him away from the general population. So they put him in solitary."

Afterward, Tom says, he was able to reach a caseworker who confirmed that Jonathan was being locked down for the vast majority of each day and suggested that the reasons were budgetary.

To Tom, this situation was unacceptable, and he immediately started firing off letters to every agency and department that might possibly be able to intervene on Jonathan's behalf. No one directly involved in Jonathan's care got back to him, he says, until Westword inquired about the situation with the Denver Sheriff Department last week. Shortly thereafter, he received a call from a representative of Denver Health, which partners with the DSD in caring for inmates' health. But in his words, "She basically listened to me and then said, 'I'll pass along your concerns.'"

She did so, says Serna, who maintains that the matter had already reached the desk of Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman by the time of her August 13 discussion with Westword and the subsequent call from the captain to Tom.

For privacy reasons, Serna can't talk specifically about Jonathan's situation. But she's able to generally discuss the procedures for dealing with mentally ill inmates at Denver's main jail, which opened in 2010 and was designed to utilize what she refers to as "a direct supervision model." The center's housing units cluster cells around a living area, or pod, that includes tables, chairs and televisions. A deputy sheriff is stationed inside each pod, where he or she can visually observe and interact with inmates.

Inside Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center.
Inside Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center.

When an individual enters the downtown detention center, Serna explains, "they go through an intake process during which they see Denver Health staff — a medical professional and a psychological professional," she says. "A determination is then made on that particular individual's treatment plan when they first enter, and that contributes to the decision about where they are going to be housed. The plan is fluid — it can change over time, as that individual keeps seeing Denver Health's medical and behavioral health staff. And as the individual moves out of crisis, their housing can change."

Inmates in crisis are put in units designed for such scenarios, Serna continues, "and the reason that they're put into one is for their safety and for others' safety while they take their medications and Denver Health continues to evaluate them. But all of our housing units have contact with others. There are open housing units and there are also housing units that have cells in them. And where we house them if we know there could be a safety issue depends on their behavioral situation and where they're at in their medical and psychological plan with Denver Health."

Supporting inmates with mental illness is a major priority for the Denver Sheriff Department, Serna says. "We want people to understand that all jails, and not just the downtown detention center, are becoming mental health providers. It's a community-oriented issue, and so we're reaching out to the community, too. We work with nonprofits and other agencies that specialize in mental health care not only to work with inmates currently inside our jails, but also to help them transition back into the community. We're always asking, 'How can we make sure these individuals don't return to the jail because of a mental health issue?' And we're also looking at how we can get individuals assistance prior to them coming into jail when it comes to mental health and substance abuse."

Such programs didn't reach Jonathan Upah in time to prevent his incarceration, and getting him help post-jail is a crapshoot, Tom says: "Jonathan keeps telling me, 'They're going to sentence me to four years in a halfway house' — and I think that would be awesome. But there's a waiting line that's extensive, and in the meantime, they're medicating him and locking him up in solitary, like he's a dog in a kennel."

Right now, Tom isn't taking the report that Jonathan is improving at face value. After all, the jail official who made this statement "is not a doctor." He adds, "The call makes me angry: 'Pacify the father...we don't really care what happens to the inmate.'

"They are Band-Aiding the problem."

Click to access the Denver Sheriff Department 2017 annual report.

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