Thursday, June 29, 2017
[Monterey County] Civil Grand Jury: Jail 'de facto mental health facility'
Despite improvements in facilities and practices, inmates grappling with mental health issues while incarcerated at the Monterey County Jail do not receive adequate care, according to a Monterey County Civil Grand Jury’s report.
The deficiency leaves the county at risk of further litigation, contends the report titled “Monterey County Jail Crisis: Our De Facto Mental Health Facility.”
In 2013, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the current and former inmates at the jail and cited serious structural and systemic problems that endangered inmates at the jail. The county settled for $4.8 million and the lawsuit resulted in various jail improvements.
Changes include having a registered nurse, as opposed to a deputy, conduct an inmate’s medical questionnaire; the jail’s visiting area is now compliant with the Americans with Disability Act; nearly 300 updated cameras have been added to the facility to improve safety; the number of “tie-off” points were reduced in hopes of preventing suicide by hangings; and chain link fencing has been added along stairs and second-floor platforms to prevent people from jumping.
With six inmate suicides between 2009 and 2015, with three in 2015 alone, several of the changes focus on suicide prevention. Changes resulting from the lawsuit also include classification reviews for inmates placed in segregation after one week and every two weeks after, and inmates placed in segregation are allowed to be outside their cells for two hours a day as opposed to one hour a day.
Additionally, all inmates, not just those who are sentenced, are now offered two hours of programming a week with subjects such as addiction recovery, women affected by trauma, and reentering the workforce.
However, the civil grand jury believes that mental health care at the jail remains inadequately addressed.
The failure to do so has already cost the county $4.8 million in the lawsuit, and the money could have been better spent elsewhere, the civil grand jury writes in the report.
Without a plan to address the mental health crisis at the jail, the county should prepare for more class action cases and significant fines, the report further notes.
On average, more than 100 women and 900 men are housed at the Monterey County Jail, and it’s estimated that about 45 percent of detainees in California prisons and jails have mental health issues, according to the report.
In particular, the civil grand jury cites the use of safety cells, also known as “rubber rooms,” as among the “most shocking” practice, describing them as “filthy windowless cells in which they placed suicidal prisoners for multiple days.” The cells lack toilets, beds and sinks; prisoners were stripped naked and forced to sit and sleep on the same floor in which a grate serves as a toilet, according to the report.
Monterey County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. John Thornburg said there are five safety cells used for suicidal inmates but clarified that they’re placed in safety smocks, not naked, and a window in the door allows staff to observe them.
The civil grand jury cites a lack of publicly funded mental health facilities in the county, with the exception of 22 beds at the Natividad Medical Center, as a contributing factor to the issue.
Reagan-era closures of state hospitals also resulted in the jail becoming a “de facto mental health facility,” according to the report, adding that having inmates with mental health forced to stay in jail for months or longer before being transferred to a state hospital is “cruel and inhumane.”
The civil grand jury recommends funding a new mental healthcare facility for the county while also reviewing existing models of integrated mental health facilities inside a jail such as in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties.
It also recommends that Monterey County Behavioral Health Agency’s services be integrated at the jail rather than contract those services out to California Forensic Medical Group.
“(Mental health issues) are definitely something we’re addressing and working on,” Thornburg said. “It’s no secret that mental health is a hot topic these days, and in law enforcement in general, we do deal with a fair amount of people who have mental health issues.”
The sheriff’s office has 60 days to respond formally to the civil grand jury’s report.
June 27, 2017
The Salinas Californian
By Chelcey Adami