SACRAMENTO — California opened a $24 million treatment center for mentally ill inmates on Thursday as state corrections officials used the occasion to push for ending federal oversight of that aspect of prison operations.
The 44,000-square-foot building at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville includes rooms where inmates will undergo individual, group and recreational outpatient therapy. It will be used to treat inmates who are seriously mentally ill but are able to function without around-the-clock care.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2009 on facilities to improve inmates' mental health care. The Vacaville center is one of 15 mental health treatment projects statewide that have been completed or are under construction.
Inmate mental health care is being overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and his court-appointed special master.
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who took office last month, said the new treatment center shows that the state is committed to providing a constitutional level of care.
"It's time for the federal courts to recognize the progress the state has made and end costly and unnecessary federal oversight," Beard said in a statement announcing the opening.
Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing the welfare of mentally ill inmates, praised the department for opening what he said was a badly needed facility. But said the state did so only because the judge demanded it and after numerous delays.
Other prisons also need treatment facilities but are not getting them, showing the need for continued court oversight, Bien said.
"The fact that they're crowing about it is kind of silly," he said. "Let's see them do something without court order rather than resisting it every step of the way."
The special master, Matthew Lopes, and attorneys representing inmates say there still are too many suicides and treatment delays to give authority for mental health treatment back to the state.
Despite years of efforts, Lopes reported last month that the state has too few mental health staff and beds. He also said inmates can wait weeks before receiving mental health treatment and that inmates are dying by suicide at the rate of one every 11 days.
California has doubled spending on inmates' medical, dental and mental health care from $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2003-04 to $2.3 billion last year. The number of prison medical, mental health and dental workers also more than doubled over six years, from 5,100 in 2005 to 12,200 in 2011.
Base salaries for prison psychiatrists range from $126,000 to $281,952, depending on seniority and other factors, and chief psychiatrists are paid more. A psychiatrist at Salinas Valley State Prison was the highest paid employee of the corrections department in 2011, making more than $803,000.
The state is disputing Lopes' report as part of an intense legal battle over federal oversight of inmate mental health and medical care. Gov. Jerry Brown is asking federal judges, including Karlton, to end a court-imposed cap on the number of inmates in California's 33 adult prisons.
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