TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—As the local criminal justice system seeks closer alignment with mental health services, the Tompkins County Jail is considering adding a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) to its facility or creating an external CSU that also services the jail. You can watch the full joint meeting between the county’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committees.

According to Jenn Olin, Tompkins County Undersheriff, it has historically been difficult to replace forensic counselors at the jail who are out on extended leave with counselors from the Tompkins County Mental Health Department due to billing issues.

The jail currently has one forensic counselor who makes an initial intake assessment on all individuals entering the jail. Following the initial intake, individuals have the option to continue counseling services or not, most of which are in group settings because the jail only has a single counselor.

Other jail facilities often have specialized medical wings that include nurses and mental health professionals, but the Tompkins County jail doesn’t.

“When [the counselor] is out, you can definitely tell the difference within the facility — not only within the incarcerated population but also our staff,” Olin said, adding that the jail also has an emotional support dog that attends group counseling sessions and also roams the building.

Dan Cornell, Tompkins County probation director, said that the mental health needs of current individuals on probation are more than one individual can handle.

Harmony Ayers-Friedlander, deputy commissioner for the mental health department, likened a CSU to a mental health facility that functioning in a convenient care model. “That’s what a crisis stabilization center is designed to do: meet that lower threshold level.”

Ayers-Friedlander also said that she believes that services both in and out of the jail would be helpful.

Opioid settlement funds

AJ Kurcher addressed the joint Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committees meeting July 18 on the topic of fentanyl and its presence in the community during the meeting’s public comment portion. Kurcher’s son died of an accidental overdose after taking what he believed to be Percocet in July 2021.

“If you research [fentanyl], like I do every single day, you might see that we’re really losing the battle in every community, in every state across our country,” she said. “I’m urging this joint committee to consider forming an opioid task force where we can really start to get an organized and concerted effort and conversation going around fentanyl prevention and education in our community.”

Kurcher also cited 75 overdose-related 911 calls between April and May. “We can’t underestimate what’s going on with fentanyl and we know that overdose deaths are dramatically underreported,” she said.

Tompkins County Legislator Chair Dan Klein introduced the opioid settlement funds and response to drug overdose as the two topics of discussion for the joint meeting.

Ayers-Friedlander said that STAP and REACH are two organizations in the community that provide fentanyl testing strips and NARCAN to community members, though high school and college students who may only use substances once in a while at parties are populations that likely aren’t getting the educational information that the outreach programs provide.

Ayers-Friedlander said that one of the other benefits of the outreach programs is that conversations can be opened about substance use. “Parents don’t want to necessarily know that their kids are using drugs, it’s a different group of kids, so we might be able to make some improvements in that area,” she said.

Legislator Randy Brown asked how accessible testing strips are and said that making them “very available wherever we can” should be a goal to help the community.

Additionally, the county will be receiving opioid settlement funds totaling about $109,000, most of which must be used for opioid prevention and treatment. One settlement has been received, and others are pending, and some funds will be ongoing annually.

Klein asked for a clear recommendation on increasing access to testing strips and NARCAN.

Cornell said that fentanyl is being distributed in colorful pills that look like candy with the intention of marketing toward children. “That’s very scary to me. A lot of our frequent users have developed a tolerance, but our youth who has no tolerance could overdose on their first use and die if there was no one available to act,” he said.

Cornell also said that the youth population in schools is one he’s concerned about — only some of the school nurses have NARCAN on-site, and with the limited number of professional ambulance systems, it may take a while for emergency services to respond to an out of town school where an overdose has been reported.

The rest of the discussion surrounded how to decide where the settlement funds will be used. One idea was for the health department to determine where the community needs lie, and future discussions will determine what department will be responsible for allocating the money.

Olin said that when the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office responds to overdose calls, they don’t necessarily know what drug caused the overdose unless they are told by the caller.

“Not all overdoses are reported, and the drug type isn’t necessarily known to us, especially whether fentanyl was used or not,” she said. “If we see a trend, we definitely put that out to the public.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...