Mental health and the Michigan Department of Corrections


MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Law enforcement officials across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are continuing the conversation about mental health and how it relates to our jails.

On February 7, 2020 Chippewa County Sheriff Michael Bitnar made a post on Facebook titled, “MENTAL HEALTH HELP (WHERE IS IT?)”

In the post, Sheriff Bitnar said, “I have an older Vietnam Veteran in our Correctional Facility only because of his mental illness. During the initial contact with law Enforcement in 2019 it was obvious this gentleman needed help. We sat with this man for several days at our local ER trying to find a bed for him in a Mental Health facility. Days went by with our Officers guarding him with no results. We tried getting state, local and VA beds with no luck.”

Sheriff Bitnar said this is not a unique case. “We currently have at least 4 inmates that are waiting for Mental Health beds. Some of them have been waiting even longer than the Veteran mentioned above.”

This is not an issue isolated to Marquette County. Local 3 News spoke with Marquette County Sheriff, Greg Zyburt. He said, “You know I think every Sheriff in the state of Michigan, all 83 counties has been in the same situation as Sheriff Bitnar in Chippewa County is. Where they have an inmate with mental illness and nowhere to put them.”

Sheriff Zyburt says there are no beds in the state of Michigan, and when they do open up, there is a line to get in them.

“We’ve had numerous times where we’ve driven down, we’ve had this person in the backseat for 8 hours, transporting them. Mind you, this is a person who has never been convicted because they are mentally ill. A few times we’ve had it where they didn’t have room and we’ve had to come back with a prisoner.”

Sheriff Zyburt said while he’s not sure what the best solution is, in Marquette County there are programs available to help with mental health.

“We’re lucky here in Marquette County with our local mental health partner, Pathways. We talk every day. They help us out. They help us try and find beds. So we have a good relationship and that has made a world of difference.”

Pathways and the Sheriff’s office recieved a diversion grant to help keep the mentally ill out of the jail.

“How that works is if an officer from any agency happens upon an individual who isn’t drunk or high and just isn’t acting right, the officer contacts us and they bring them in. Through this grant which was approximately $400,000.00 payed for the room to house them. It pays for the officer who is called in overtime can sit with them until a Pathways worker comes in. What that does is divert them from going in the jail.” We have had some successes there, but only on a lower case level.”

Sheriff Zyburt said he’s hopeful about progress being made.

“There’s always a lot of talk and the current administration looks like they are putting money in the budget for mental health to help decrease the population in the jails.”

A report from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration shows how the state is working to address mental health in jails.

To read the full report, click here.

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