Faces in Focus: Jail psychologist wears many hats
Appeal Staff Writer
While Carson City Jail deputies tend to the physical needs of inmates, “Doc” Joe McEllistrem, a forensic psychologist contracted by the city, tends to their minds.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice , more than 16 percent of jail inmates have a mental illness and 70 percent of those inmates are there for nonviolent offenses.
With McEllistrem on the payroll, it’s evident Carson City is no exception.
“We wanted to figure out a way to identify any inmates with serious or potentially serious mental health problems, to monitor these inmates in our facility, and to stabilize any inmates in a crisis situation and provide ongoing care and follow up with those inmates,” McEllistrem said.
It’s the marriage of law and psychology that drives McEllistrem. The fascination with why offenders offend brought him into this line of work, and it’s what keeps him here.
And with a sheriff open to McEllistrem’s ideas, he finds his work easy and satisfying.
Recently, he attained a grant to bring in someone to make sure that when those who need McEllistrem are released, they have the tools to stop doing whatever got them into custody in the first place, he said.
“I don’t want anyone leaving that’s homeless. I want to help get them a place to live, do follow-up services on the outside, and bring in people from the outside to educate them about job opportunities, vocational rehab, Social Security and HUD housing,” he said.
McEllistrem gets his “clients” in a variety of ways – jail deputies sometimes mention someone they are concerned about. Sometimes, the inmates request his help.
“Our admissions to (mental health hospitals) have declined. Before I was (in the jail), any time they had a problem with an inmate, they often went the hospital route. We take care of them now,” he said. “Every time we don’t take someone to the hospital, we save $5,000.”
In addition to his jail work, McEllistrem is in private practice, working for judges and attorneys.
“It’s the freedom of being in private practice that energizes me to do this kind of work in this kind of population,” he said of his jail psychology.
He’s worked on a number of high-profile cases, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. When the defense attorneys wanted to go the insanity route, McEllistrem, along with forensic psychologist J.R. Maloy, were able to analyze defendants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and debunk that assertion.
“Once the defense decided we weren’t going to go the psych route, they blamed it on Waco,” he said.
McEllistrem also worked on the Erin Kuhn case, in which a woman cut out her niece’s unborn child from the girl’s womb.
He said he is working on a similar case in Kansas.
“I do a lot of fairly intense homicide cases,” he said.
But McEllistrem is also a family man. Together, he and his wife, clinical psychologist Lisa Keating, are raising an adopted 3-year-old daughter. This summer, the couple plans to venture back to China and to adopt a sister for Elia.
McEllistrem is also on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Nevada, writes articles for Carson Magazine, publishes articles for psychology publications, and takes part in the Mental Health Court.
Contrary to popular belief, he and Lisa don’t sit around at home talking shop all night.
“That’s the last thing we do,” he said.
Nor does he analyze everyone he meets.
“You don’t have the energy or interest in that,” he said, chuckling. “It’s kind of a running joke – my meter’s not always running.”
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.