County struggles with mentally ill inmates, state hospital has no room

(Jackson, Wyo.) - This morning, there was an impromptu hearing in the Teton County Circuit Court regarding inmate Dennis Gross. Gross has been in the Teton County jail since October 11, 2015, when he was arrested for unlawful touching. He also has a long list of past charges and convictions. The court ordered Teton County to transfer Gross to the Wyoming State Hospital for a mental health evaluation on February 11, but he has been waiting without bond to be transferred. There is a similar situation for inmate Victor Ford, who was arrested for aggravated assault on February 3 and also has a criminal history. He, too, is awaiting transfer to the Wyoming State Hospital for a mental health evaluation. After weeks of waiting, Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen called the Wyoming State Hospital and told them that he was going to transfer the two inmates. "Yesterday we called and said that we are bringing them [to the Wyoming State Hospital]. I am going to abide by this order,” said Sheriff Whalen. "And frankly the underlying thing there is that they need help." So what is the delay? Assistant Attorney General Jackson Engels, who was on the phone today representing the Wyoming Department of Health, stated that there is a shortage of evaluators at the Wyoming State Hospital and that they are close to capacity. "We are in crisis mode," Engels stated during the hearing today. Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Weichman said that the Sheriff is desperate for help from the state on this matter. During the hearing, Dr. Bruce Hayse testified on the mental condition of the two men. On the stand, he said that both individuals have a long history of mental illness. He stated that the current situation for the two men is "bordering on cruel and inhumane. Not because of the treatment in the jail, but because the facility is not capable of meeting their needs." Dr. Hayse went on to say that the jail is an "inappropriate facility for their care." The Teton County Sheriff's Office hopes to transfer these inmates for the wellbeing of the two men, but also for the safety of the detention officers and other inmates. In early February, Ford was charged with causing bodily injury to a peace officer while in jail. "As the sheriff in charge of that jail and responsible for not just the jail but the people who are in it -- staff as well as other inmates -- when I receive an order commanding that I respond to transferring custody from my custody to the State Hospital for an evaluation, I can’t look at that in any other way as being something upon which to act as soon as I can,” said Sheriff Whalen. The Director of the Wyoming Department of Health Thomas Forslund spoke on the phone during the hearing. He stated that the Wyoming State Hospital currently has 28 beds available for these inmates, with two vacancies at this time. There are 13 people on the waiting list -- Ford is number four on the list and Gross is number five on the list. "It is a growing issue," said Forslund. "These numbers have been growing across the state." He explained that the department is working to expand the facility and staffing, but it looks like 2 - 4 weeks before there is room for Gross and Ford to be transferred to the hospital. "We are keeping them in jail without the availability of bond and these are not crimes that would warrant that," said Sheriff Whalen. "How long do we keep these people without affording them the possibility of bond while we wait on the state to say that they have a bed to evaluate them?” Judge James Radda asked that the state look into other options or facilities to evaluate these two inmates. He also ordered everyone to convene to re-visit the issue at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, February 26. #buckrail #news