Grand Jury: Mentally Ill Inmates in County Jails Are Isolated and Over-Medicated

While the Orange County jail has become the de facto housing facility for the mentally ill, a lack of funding for treatment programs and over-reliance on isolation techniques and medication means most mentally ill inmates have needs that are going unmet, according to a new report from the county grand jury.

County jail facilities, which include the Central Men’s Jail and Intake and Release Center, are short-term detention centers for inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. During the first ten months of 2015, the facilities housed 13,548 mentally-ill inmates, with 89 percent of them housed in the general population rather in mental health beds, the report said.

For inmates whose mental illness can-make them a danger to themselves or others, the jail tends to rely on medication and isolation in padded cells rather than counseling or structured programs. These conditions are neither safe nor therapeutic for seriously ill inmates, according to the report.

The report, which looks at mental health treatment options for male inmates housed in the county jail system, pointed to a general lack of resources and procedural clarity for mental health professionals serving the jail, resulting in inmates being held in sub-standard conditions.

Among the findings of the report:

  • The Intake and Release Center doesn’t have enough mental health beds to accommodate all the seriously ill inmates who need regular medical, psychiatric, nursing or case management services.
  • Less than 1 percent of the total jail population has access to group therapy. Counselors who conduct the therapy don’t have any specific training or guidelines.
  • There’s no system to ensure humane treatment of inmates kept in padded “safety cells” where they are “are cold, sleep next to a grate that is used as a toilet, and no water is available for the inmate to wash hands after the use of the toilet and prior to eating meals.”
  • Safety cells are used as a substitute for treatment — although there’s no criteria for moving someone into or out of a safety cell.
  • Neither Correctional Health Services nor the Sheriff’s Department collects or analyzes data on use of safety cells other than how often they are used.
  • Low salaries mean there aren’t enough jail psychiatrists to go around — meaning only inmates who are seriously ill or in crisis receive any type of mental health care.

The report, however, does highlight areas where the county has excelled, such as the implementation of Laura’s Law, which empowers courts to order psychiatric services for people with serious mental illnesses.

Collaborative courts, such as drug court or veteran’s court, have been effective at reducing recidivism and costs to the jail system, according to the report.

The report has recommended an overhaul of jail mental health services, including additional funding for psychiatric care and collaborative courts, the creation of mental health programs for all inmates, additional protocol to guide mental health staff, and the creation of a team to analyze jail data and quality of life for inmates.

Read the full report on the grand jury’s website.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.