Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Imperial County Civil Grand Jury vital to keeping agencies accountable, foreman says

July 2, 2014
Imperial Valley Press
By Antoine Abou-Diwan

With the numerous public agencies operating in Imperial County at the same time, it can be difficult to assess the overall quality of service that county taxpayers are getting.
But despite some resistance from officials with the Heffernan Memorial Hospital District, 2013-2014 Imperial County civil grand jury foreman Roy Caldwell said he believes the county’s residents can be confident in the services they are getting.
“We’re in pretty good hands,” Caldwell said. “Everything seems to be really run well. We’re kind of blessed with the people running things.”
Caldwell and his fellow jurors examined the operations Calipatria and Centinela state prisons, Imperial County jail, juvenile hall and Imperial County Behavioral Health Services, El Centro’s Public Works and water/wastewater departments and the Heffernan Memorial Hospital District over the period of a year. The jury’s conclusions and recommendations were released in a report this week and is available at the county Superior Court’s website and at for more detail.
Much like jury duty for civil and criminal trials, participants on civil grand juries are drawn from the public. Some may have an eighth-grade education; others may have graduate degrees. 
“You need that diversity,” said Kristine Kussman, court executive officer and jury commissioner.
The goal is to instill confidence in the public that their government agencies are accountable to the people they serve, she said.
Jurors have a rotating list of agencies to inspect and follow up on citizen complaints and previous years’ investigations.
The idea that public employees are accountable to the people they serve appears to be new for some public employees.
Caldwell’s team was initially rebuffed when it looked into Calexico’s Heffernan Memorial Hospital District.
“It was hard to get paperwork from them,” Caldwell said. “One of them said, ‘It’s not your business where we spend our money.’ Once she realized we were serious, they cooperated.”
Caldwell lauded Sheriff Ray Loera for the way the county jail and juvenile hall are run. Still, there is room for improvement in other agencies.
“Other institutions we investigated — they may need some help,” Caldwell said, alluding to Heffernan. “We need more watchdogs. A lot of people think, ‘We can do whatever we want.’ But with somebody looking over their shoulders, things are much better.”
CALIPATRIA STATE PRISON: A Civil Grand Jury committee met with Calipatria State Prison Officials and the facility in October 2013. It evaluated the 3,500-inmate prison on criteria like fire safety, food and medical services, inmate treatment, staff morale and job training for staff. The committee concluded that the prison is run well. They noted that cell-phone blockers are not always working properly and that one officer in the administrative segregation unit control booth is not enough to control such a large area. 
CENTINELA STATE PRISON: The Civil Grand Jury committee toured Centinela State Prison in October 2013 but was unable to meet with the warden that day as he was meeting with inmates that day. Still, the committee noted that prison staff was accommodating and open, and that no parts of the prison were off-limits to the investigation. The committee concluded that Centinela, which housed 3,040 inmates at the time of their visit, is well run. They noted that "noticed that "inmates have a great deal rights, benefits and liberties at the taxpayers expense, in comparison to the average lower income citizen." The committee suggested that the prison seek alternative funding sources for inmate vocational training as state funding dries up.
IMPERIAL COUNTY BEHAVIORAL HEALTH SERVICES: The county BHS seeks to help individuals suffering from mental illness and substance abuse to integrate into the community. A Civil Grand Jury committee met with BHS staff in January. It noted that they were open and accommodating. During the course of the investigation, the committee learned of an incident where a law enforcement officer who was dealing with an individual with mental illness requested assistance from a BHS staffer. That response never came. In following up on this incident, the grand jury committee learned that while law enforcement officers regularly deal with individuals deemed a danger to themselves and others (5150), "crisis beds" were not always available when needed. While room was eventually made for those individuals under a 5150 hold, it came hours later. The grand jury recommended that BHS officials seek out law enforcement leadership to find a way for law enforcement and behavioral health to work better together.


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