When Sonoma County sheriff’s officials publicly revealed their plans last spring to build a $48 million jail wing for the mentally ill, a common question quickly emerged.
Why not build a psychiatric hospital instead in Sonoma County? After all, the only local hospital beds for mental health patients are operated by a for-profit company, while many low-income residents suffering a psychiatric crisis often wait for hours in an emergency room, waiting for a bed to free up in a psychiatric hospital in another county.
“Initially, the pushback was ‘Why are you doing that? You should do it for people in the community,’ ” recalled Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who is in charge of county detention facilities.
But “the community,” Walker notes, includes everybody, even those in jail.
“It includes people in custody, and they’re going to go back into the community. Shouldn’t they go back better off than when they came?” he said.
Sonoma County’s existing jail, like many others across the country, was never designed to house so many inmates with mental illness. The new wing, slated for construction beginning next spring, is designed to change that: its primary focus is “treatment in a therapeutic health care environment with a custody overlay,” according to the project design report.
Local officials say the 32,000-square-foot jail wing to house inmates with mental illness could serve as a national model that addresses the realities of mental health services across the country.
“We really believe that we’ve pushed the design envelope into a whole new area,” said Bruce Oveson, senior capital projects manager for the county.
The 72-bed facility, which will be attached to the north side of the existing jail at the county complex, will have four separate single-story units: a 12-bed high-security unit and three standard 20-bed units with ready access to exterior recreation or green-space areas. The three 20-bed units can be divided into two areas of 10 beds each for configurations that increase the amount of time inmates are outside their cells.
In all, the facility will include 48 cells, of which half are double-bunked; nine day rooms; seven multipurpose rooms; and six mental health observation rooms.
The four units surround a central open-air courtyard that designers hope will create a “village” environment. Space for group and individual counseling and basic medical examinations will also be included.
County officials said the new jail facility will allow inmates with mental illness to be stabilized rather than aggravating or worsening their mental health. Walker said the facility will include some of the same treatment programs that are available on the “outside,” allowing inmates to be transitioned to community-based programs without a break in treatment.
“The goal is to do a better job in-custody so someone has a better chance at success when they get into that program out of custody,” Walker said.
Lt. Bryan Cleek, planning and research manager for the detention division of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, said the project has received a lot of buy-in from members of the local mental health community because the county sought their input during the spring of 2016 before the design phase began.
“We didn’t go there with the idea, ‘Here’s what we’re building.’ We went there with the idea, ‘Here’s what we want to build. Do you have any ideas? We’re looking for suggestions,’ ” Cleek said.
Crisis care: The new mental institutions
Sonoma County has a chronic shortage of psychiatric hospital beds. As as a result, a growing number of mentally ill residents are ending up in local emergency rooms and in the jail system. A three-part series, run on three consecutive Sundays, examines the causes and ramifications of the current state of the county’s mental health system, and the people who are impacted the most.
Aug. 6 — Hospitals: The closure of two psychiatric hospitals in Sonoma County has left a gaping hole.
Today — Jail: The Sonoma County Jail has become the largest psychiatric treatment facility in the county.
Aug. 20 — Solutions: Sonoma County explores ways to improve services to people suffering from severe mental illness.
Share your story
We want to hear about your experience with local psychiatric emergency services. What do you do when you or a loved one faces a mental health crisis? Have you or a loved one sat in a hospital bed waiting to be transferred to an out-of-county psychiatric hospital or other mental health facility? Have you or a loved one received psychiatric services in the Sonoma County Jail’s mental health unit? Please send a brief account of your experience to Martin Espinoza at firstname.lastname@example.org.