Monday, July 8, 2019

Humboldt County Grand Jury On Mental Health Problems At County Jail

The following is from the Humboldt County Grand Jury.

It seems odd that a small jail in a rural California county would experience a significant impact
from decisions made by the United States Supreme Court and California legislators and voters.
But, the Humboldt County Correctional Facility (HCCF) has been affected by five specific
actions. The first dates from the early 1970s when California’s Governor Ronald Reagan signed
the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which shuttered many of the States mental institutions. The next
was the 2011 decision issued by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Plata
which ordered California to decrease its state prison population. The last three, Assembly Bill
109 (AB 109) (2011), Proposition 47 (2015), and Proposition 57 (2016) had the most immediate
impact. Each dealt with the way California decided to accomplish the prison population
decrease ordered by the United States Supreme Court.

The focus of the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury (HCCGJ) in its investigation primarily
concerned the correctional facility’s delivery of mental health care under these five actions. We
found that the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act increased the number of mentally ill people who are
placed in jail because there is nowhere else for them to go. The Brown v. Plata decision meant
that as California’s prisons emptied, the county jails’ populations grew. Many of the health care
issues which had been the State’s responsibility now became the county’s. The last three, AB
109, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 have resulted in even more problems. The HCCF is now
housing more “experienced” inmates for longer periods of time. The new inmates tend to be
older with more mental health problems; the new type of inmate has created a different
environment in the facility, with racial issues being more prevalent and with violence increasing.
Our in-depth study found the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) mental health
staff working in the jail is not able to provide an adequate standard of care due to the number of
inmates staff is expected to treat, in a facility that is not equipped for mental health services, and
with inadequate staffing and funding. Those who work in the correctional facility are dedicated
to doing the best they can to serve their patients, but they are hindered by the conditions under
which they must work. These factors not only affect the jail population and its dedicated staff,
but also the community as a whole.

When a government entity becomes aware of a problem, it usually establishes a committee, hires
a consultant, studies the issues, and finally creates a solution. It is not a quick procedure. And
the ultimate irony is that the solution often creates other problems. The new problems must be
studied, investigated, and potentially solved, taking more time. And, guess what, the new
solutions often create even more problems. It seems like an endless process!
For example, in the 1960s California’s mental health institutions reached a crisis. They were
overcrowded and understaffed. Many had become little more than holding pens. Some patients
were involuntarily committed. The legislature's solution was to enact the Lanterman-PetrisShort Act (LPS). While the legislation defined the process by which patients could be
involuntarily committed to mental institutions, it effectively ended most judicial commitments to
such facilities. Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law on July 1, 1972.
Complications arose in 1986-1987. Prior to then, the LPS allowed involuntary treatment to those
who were detained under an initial three-day hold called 5150. It was also believed it was
applicable to the longer 14-day hospitalization known as 5250. This treatment allowed the
administration of psychotropic drugs. In the 1987 case Riese v. St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical
Center, the California State Court of Appeals declared patients had the right to exercise informed
consent regarding the use of anti psychotropic drugs, except in an emergency. If a patient
refuses medication “a judicial determination of their incapacity to make treatment decisions” was
required before a patient could be involuntarily treated. While Riese hearings respected patients’
rights, they limited treatment options.

In the late 1980s, Nick Petris, the legislator representing Oakland and Berkeley for 40 years,
expressed his dissatisfaction with the results of the LPS Act which bears his name. In an oral
history piece Petris recorded in 1989, he stated that the law, “went overboard.” In it he
channeled a mentally ill person saying,
“If I had broken a leg or had a heart attack, you would be swarming all over the place
with doctors and nurses and this and that. Why the hell didn’t you get me treatment?
‘Well, because you resisted.’
“Well baloney I resisted! Of course, I resisted, because I didn’t know what the hell I was

The LPS Act remains in place. Nearly 50 years later, it continues to be discussed and studied.
Another government action which complicates treatment of California's mentally ill is the United
States Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in the case of Brown v. Plata. The Court ruled prison
overcrowding had a detrimental effect on the State’s ability to provide adequate medical care to
its incarcerated. The Court found that “adequate care” is guaranteed by provisions of the Eighth
Amendment to the United States Constitution.

As a result, California’s elected officials set to work to develop a plan to meet the Court’s ruling.
Rather than building more prisons to lessen overcrowding, California passed Assembly Bill 109
(AB 109). Its stated aim is to divert people convicted of certain classes of less serious crimes
from incarceration in the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to local county jails.
California’s voters approved two Propositions, 47 and 57, which were designed to clarify the
earlier AB 109.
Each of the above, although well-meaning solutions, created new problems in delivering mental
health care. The mentally ill who are not incarcerated face difficult situations as many receive
no care whatsoever. Some have become homeless; others have attempted to self-medicate; and
many have found themselves in correctional institutions. Reducing the number of inmates in
State correctional facilities has led to increased numbers in local jails. A second impact was the
re-classifying of some felonies to misdemeanors which has increased the population in local
The Humboldt County Correctional Facility (HCCF), like many other county jails, has found
itself dealing with a more sophisticated inmate population. Those who have been in state prisons
and are now in county jails have introduced “prison culture” to county jails. Gang-related
violence has increased. Another impact is that inmates are now serving longer sentences in the
county jail. In the past inmates were limited to terms of one year. Now there is no limit on the
number of years an inmate may serve there.

This makes it difficult for HCCF to provide adequate and appropriate medical, dental, and
mental health care for its inmates. To be receiving the mental health care they need, inmates
would be better treated in institutions that offer more comprehensive services. On the streets of
Eureka, in other Humboldt areas, and in communities throughout the state, many of the mentally
ill wander untreated and end up in the County jail.

Read the entire report here

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