Reno, Nev. (News 4 & Fox 11) — This story has been updated to include information aired Wednesday about deputies, on their days off, helping inmates once they're released from the program.
Mental health cases have increased exponentially in our community. That's especially true in our northern Nevada jails and prisons. Staff at the Washoe County Detention Center just implemented a new program that's helping these individuals.
During July 2021 deputies who work inside the mental health unit known as House 16 got together to come up with a plan. All of them knew something more could be done.
At the time, men and women who needed mental health attention were housed in a much smaller unit. There were 56 cells. But there wasn't enough room so they moved the men to the largest unit in the jail. On average there are about 90 male inmates in House 16.
A year ago the deputies started an exercise program to get the inmates out of their cells in the mornings. But more importantly it's helping get their lives back on track.
"We talked to the psychiatrist at the time and she said 'yeah, that's great' and we did a little research on our own and the benefit of exercise with mental health illness is amazing," said Deputy Anthony Edwards. "Keeping people with mental illnesses locked up is not good for them."
Inmate Chris March participates.
"I get 100% from it and I put 100% into it because I believe in what they're doing," he said.
The mental health inmates used to only be let out of their cells an hour and 15 minutes every day-and-a-half and they never socialized as a group. The exercise program allows them many more benefits.
"It also lead to a lot more use of force because they were only out every other day, a lot of them wanted to stay out. So when their hour and 15 minutes was up they had to be coached back to their cell. I don’t think we’ve had any use of forces in 11 months. That right there speaks volumes for what we are doing," said Edwards.
"Trying to get these guys functioning as human beings again... building up some pride in them, building up some routine and now they have the ability to socialize together," said Deputy Katie Akerson.
Inmates are now more likely to take their medications, take pride in their hygiene, follow the rules and be respectful.
The inmates feel like they're equals.
"I came in here with some things that weren't so savory and they treated me like a person and made sure I could shine the way I wanted to," said March who has been locked up about three months. "I just hope that the work I did and here will lay the groundwork for out there."
As the inmates are released from the jail, the deputies will give the men their contact information -- to reach out if they feel they need help with services.
"We give these guys our word when they're in jail and we tell them if they need anything when they get out that they can contact us," Edwards said.
Often Deputies Edwards and Akerson show up on Wednesdays, on their days off, to Community Court. It's a service for people who have been charged with non-violent crimes or those who just need some community services. Community Court is held in the Washoe County Library.
"This is an alternative to the criminal justice system where we provide access to services for our unsheltered population and get them back on their feet," said Judge Chris Hazlett-Stevens.
People can sign up for Medicaid and SNAP benefits or even an identification card or Social Security card.
"We have other providers that will provide more substantial services such as mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, maybe we need to connect our person to a primary care physician," said Hazlett-Stevens.
The deputies volunteer their time to make sure their former inmates stay on track with their lives.
"That is that sacrifice, giving some of our time to help see our guys through, be a support system that they need and don't have," said Akerson.
Deputies Edwards and Akerson met up with former inmate Tony Reid who got a free phone from Community Court. He was previously locked up for alcohol violations and today he said he's sober.
"To give up their free time, come down here and help people like I used to be. It's incredible," said Reid.
Watch part one below:
You can reach Investigative Reporter through email at email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook at Kim Burrows KRNV, Twitter at @RenoKimBurrows, and on TikTok at tvkimburrows.