Can California Jails Handle Mentally Ill Inmates?

The shift of many inmates from state prisons to county jails in California raises questions about whether the local facilities can deal with inmates suffering mental illness. One prisoner with schizophrenia was shackled to a chair for 46 hours before he died.

Questions are being raised about the way California jails are handling a sharp increase in the number of mentally ill inmates, the Los Angeles Times reports. In one case for 46 hours, Andrew Holland’s legs and arms were shackled to a chair in the San Luis Obispo County jail. Holland, who suffered from schizophrenia, sat in his own filth, eating and drinking little. He was naked, except for a helmet and mask covering his face and a blanket that slipped off his lap, exposing him to staff who passed by. When he was unbound, guards dumped him in a nearby cell. Within 40 minutes, he had stopped breathing. Holland’s death Jan. 22 led to a record $5-million legal settlement.

The surge in inmates requiring psychiatric care has resulted in part from changes to state sentencing laws shifting offenders from state prisons to county jails built to house those awaiting trial or serving short sentences. At the same time, an acute shortage of long-term care facilities makes it more likely that patients will experience a crisis that ends in their arrest, turning jails into mental health centers of last resort. Unlike the centralized state prison system, counties operate independently and jail standards have few specific requirements. Mental health experts say most counties are ill-prepared. From 2012 to 2016, jails in California reported a 30 percent jump — from 13,270 to 17,350 — in inmates needing mental health services, says the California Board of State and Community Corrections. Other counties, including Riverside, Fresno and Yuba, are embroiled in litigation alleging inadequate treatment for mentally ill inmates. A Marin Count grand jury criticized the practice of holding mentally ill inmates in isolation for more than 24 hours, a treatment courts have ruled is “cruel and unusual punishment.”