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County details efforts to address mental illness 

One week after the SLO County Jail experienced its third inmate death of 2017, the SLO County Board of Supervisors received an update on efforts to address growing concerns about the treatment and care of mentally ill individuals at the facility.

click to enlarge STEPPING UP SLO County is considering a host of recommendations to improve services and treatment for mentally ill inmates at the SLO County Jail. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • STEPPING UP SLO County is considering a host of recommendations to improve services and treatment for mentally ill inmates at the SLO County Jail.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson addressed the members of the board at their Dec. 5 regular meeting, presenting them with a detailed list of recommendations developed by two ad-hoc committees created as part of the county's participation in "Stepping Up," a national initiative aimed at helping local governments find solutions to keep the mentally ill from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.

"We cannot Band-Aid this issue," Parkinson told the supervisors. "We need to make significant changes."

Those possible changes were detailed in a three-page list of recommendations made the county's Stepping Up planning committee. Those recommendations listed some proposed changes to the jail facility itself, including creating a dedicated detoxification center and a mental health treatment wing.

At the meeting, Parkinson indicated that some of the suggestions were already in progress. The Sheriff's Office is currently building a new medical facility at the jail, which they expect to complete in May of next year. Once opened, the facility will free up space in the jail's current medical facility that could be repurposed into a treatment space for mentally ill inmates.

In addition to the Stepping Up recommendations, the county is also awaiting the results of a independent review of behavioral and medical services at the jail by a hired consultant, who is expected to make recommendations in early 2018. The county is also working on a request for proposals to study the possibility and cost of contracting mental and medical health services in the jail in the future.

The presentation came seven days after 62-year-old inmate Russell Alan Hammer died of a suspected pulmonary embolism while in custody at the jail. Court records showed that Hammer was undergoing a court-ordered mental health evaluation at the time of his death.

Hammer's death marked the 12th inmate death since 2012. The county recently paid a $5 million settlement to the family of another mentally ill inmate, Andrew Holland, who died in the jail in January. The FBI is currently investigating the jail for possible civil rights violations in connection with Holland and other inmates' deaths.

While Holland's case ignited scrutiny of the jail, the issue of mental illness extends beyond the county's criminal justice system. Mayors and police chiefs from several SLO County cities, as well as representatives from local mental health advocacy organizations, also attended the Dec. 4 meeting and spoke about the challenges of providing comprehensive treatment to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley said increasing services and treatment would cut down on the many hours that police spend dealing with individuals experiencing mental health crises.

"We also see the need for getting people more mental health help and [not] putting them into a criminal justice system where they don't belong," he said.

While the county moves forward with its plans to address the issue, some residents urged more immediate action. Resident Linda Martin said she'd experienced the problem firsthand after her daughter, who suffers from a mental illness, spent time in the jail last year.

"It's a crisis right now," she told the board during the meeting's public comment period.

Local attorney Stew Jenkins also urged more immediate action, calling on the jail to increase the ratio of staff to inmates and stating that inmates would continue to die while the county prepared to take action on the various recommendations and proposals.

"Immediate remedies must be installed now," said Jenkins, who also serves as the secretary for the SLO County chapter of the ACLU. Δ


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