A statewide disability rights agency has released a report alleging serious violations against inmates held in the mental health unit of the Sonoma County Jail, including illegally medicating some inmates and assessing excessive solitary confinement and isolation.
The 25-page report, released Monday, was issued by Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocacy organization with federal and state authority to review and investigate government services and agencies affecting the disabled.
The DRC reported a number of violations among the jail’s inmates with mental illness, ranging from improper medication procedures and providing inadequate mental care to relying on excessive isolation and solitary confinement.
But county mental health and jail officials said while some of the findings in the report were valid, anecdotal accounts obtained during the DRC’s 2015 visit were exaggerated and “over-dramatized.”
“I thought the description of our mental health staff was inaccurate,” said Michael Kennedy, head of the county mental health department, which provides mental health services in the jail.
Kennedy said the problems cited in the report are not unique to Sonoma County. He said the real problem stems from the lack of inpatient psychiatric beds for the general population as well as for jail inmates with mental illness.
But Anne Hadreas, an attorney for DRC, said the Sonoma County Jail’s mental health unit did not have adequate mental health services to treat inmates with such severe mental illness. Hadreas and other DRC attorneys, along with agents of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, toured the jail last August.
“What it is is a place that’s not set up to provide intensive mental health treatment,” Hadreas said Tuesday during an interview. “Which is a role that it’s taking on and a role that is not appropriate.”
The DRC report, while recognizing county mental health and jail officials have implemented “positive practices and programs,” found ample evidence the rights of prisoners with disabilities were being violated.
The report found treatment for mental health patients “consisted mainly of medication and cell-front interviews with staff. Since most cell doors have solid fronts, mental health staff attempt to communicate by speaking through the food slots or the cracks between the door and the frame.” Such interviews, the report said, are ineffective means of providing therapy.
Kennedy said one of the reasons the local jail houses inmates with such severe mental illness is that no local psychiatric hospitals in Northern California will take them and provide the necessary psychiatric treatment to stabilize them. He said some inmates with severe mental illness should only be treated in secure inpatient psychiatric units that are specially designed for jail and prison inmates.
None exists in the region.
“Where are these places that we can send them?” Kennedy said.
Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who oversees the county jail system, agreed.
“If you’re looking for the most optimal place to treat someone, whether it’s for cancer or whether it’s for bipolar disorder the jail is not the most optimal place to treat them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there appropriately,” said Walker. “If you killed your family member the jail is an appropriate place.”
The county is slated to begin construction in 2019 on a $48-million unit for mentally ill inmates that’s designed to be a more therapeutic envirnoment.
Read the full Disability Rights California report here