The next front in jail reform

September 12, 2013 

The county is exploring a new stand-alone facility for the incarceration and treatment of mentally ill inmates.

It’s now been two full years since my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors and I appointed a special commission to investigate allegations of widespread brutality by deputies in our county jails. The panel’s creation stands as a clear demonstration of our commitment to ensuring that the constitutional rights of inmates are protected and that members of the Sheriff’s Department, no matter what their rank, are held accountable for transgressions.

Among its findings, released one year ago this month, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence recommended dozens of reforms to restore integrity to the nation’s largest jail system. Although some of those reforms have yet to be implemented—including the hiring of a watchdog Inspector General—measurable improvements are taking root.

But the job’s not nearly done. This is especially true when it comes to a big slice of the jail population that poses a uniquely difficult challenge for the county—the more than 2,000 inmates coping with mental health issues. In an environment of control and conformity, they require a level of individualized care that the system seems unable to consistently provide.

The Sheriff’s Department certainly didn’t ask for its jails to be our mental hospitals of last resort when state mental health dollars and facilities began disappearing decades ago. Clearly, the county’s far-flung lockups were neither designed nor intended for the special needs of these troubled individuals whose mental state likely contributed to the criminality that led to their confinement. But that’s the reality we have faced for years, and it is our obligation to act now with the same sense of urgency we’ve displayed in confronting the problem of deputy violence.

In fact, we’ve been assuring the federal government of our dedication to this mission for the past 11 years, assurances that now apparently have worn thin.  

In 2002, the county entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which had concluded that the jail’s staff was engaged in such “abuse and mistreatment of prisoners with mental illnesses” as improperly using physical restraints and  providing inadequate facilities and staffing. The Sheriff’s Department, along with the county’s mental health agency, agreed to fix the failings and cooperate in bi-annual federal inspections to ensure that inmates’ constitutional rights were not being violated.

But last week, U.S. Justice Department officials notified the county that they were opening a civil investigation into the allegations of excessive force and undertaking a new “assessment” of the mental health agreement. In a letter to Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka and Sheriff Baca, justice officials acknowledged the county’s progress in this latter area, but stated bluntly that “significant problems remain.” They cited, among other things, the growing number of inmates with serious mental illnesses who are being housed in “obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men’s Central Jail” and an increase this year in jail suicides.

I fully agree that the current conditions for mentally ill inmates inside the archaic and depressing central jail are unacceptable—as do my colleagues. In May, acting on a motion I authored, the board voted to take the first steps in the possible construction of an Integrated Treatment Center, which would house all mentally ill inmates and provide care consistent with the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

Our action, which represents a potential investment in jail reform for the mentally ill of well over $1 billion, should clearly signal to federal officials our desire to get this right.

I know there are some who’ll see the federal government’s stepped-up scrutiny of our jail system as an intrusion into our local affairs, usurping our sounder, closer-to-the-ground judgment. I disagree. I believe the federal government’s concerns will generate an important public conversation about what needs to be done so the county can move forward without potential federal litigation to force our compliance.

And that conversation could not come at a more crucial time, as our bursting jail system confronts unprecedented pressures because of state legislation AB 109, which has crammed thousands of new inmates into county cells, inmates whose crimes used to land them in state prison.

I also know that the mental health challenges of our inmates do not generate a great deal of concern among a general public that is more concerned about the safety of their neighborhoods. But these are not mutually exclusive goals. Studies show that recidivism drops among mentally ill/dually-diagnosed inmates who receive intensive treatment.

Our system of constitutional government requires that we humanely treat those we place behind bars. But providing adequate mental health treatment to the thousands of inmates in our county jail should also be embraced as a matter of enlightened self-interest.

Posted 9/12/13

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