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Talking Prison Problems

ACLU-Sponsored Event Focuses on Illegal Immigrants and Mentally Ill


Problems affecting both the Santa Barbara and national prison system were addressed at a public forum held last week by the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Featuring former PUEBLO executive director Belen Seara, local attorney Mark Saatjian, and founder and executive director of Families ACT Suzanne Riordan, the seminar examined the institution’s legal, health, monetary, and human rights issues.

For Seara, these issues are especially apparent in the system’s attitude toward illegal immigrants. Seara described a Department of Homeland Security program called Secure Communities (S-Comm) and its relationship with the “pipeline” to show how the U.S. containment system has been violating basic human rights and liberties.

S-Comm, a program built to detain and deport illegal immigrant criminals, works hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, she explained. Fingerprints acquired by local law offices through S-Comm are checked against FBI and Homeland Security records to determine a person’s criminal past and residency status; if a person’s record indicates he or she is undocumented, the local jail is requested to hold that person until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can come to investigate.

Though originally created to deport “the worst of the worst” of illegal alien criminals, S-Comm jeopardizes even those categorized as noncriminals, said Seara. Of the 94,000 immigrants deported since its installation in 2008, less than 30 percent were classified as major offenders and nearly 30 percent were noncriminals, a statistic very much in line with Santa Barbara’s S-Comm results, she explained.

Seara maintained that this system — the collaboration between police and ICE — undermines community policing by encouraging racial profiling and a lack of trust in the local police force by community members. What’s worse, she insisted, S-Comm has no oversight mechanism and provides no data release from county jails, meaning the number and cost of people being detained and deported remains unknown.

As a solution to this problem, Seara calls for a “broader effort by us to put pressure on so-called ‘progressives’ to make sure they address these issues.”

The area of juvenile detention also suffers problematic trends, according to Saatjian, who specializes in juvenile law. The mental and emotional trauma inflicted on convicted juveniles, especially in Santa Barbara, is for Saatjian, evidence of the system’s inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Juveniles, he explained, have been proven by scientific studies to be biologically immature, meaning they lack the “organs of cognition needed to make good decisions about risk,” and their minds as well as their bodies are not fully developed. And yet, the prison institution exposes these undeveloped youngsters to a theme of isolation — isolation that extensive studies have proven inflicts lasting effects on adults “whose brains are developed, whose social abilities are developed,” argued Saatjian.

Detained juveniles are placed in a kind of confinement that discourages social activity, he explained. Juveniles in Santa Barbara (which itself lacks a juvenile hall), for instance, are housed 70 miles away from their families in one of five units in Santa Maria — units that are “very much more like prison than they are even like county jail in terms of the freedoms that are available to juveniles,” according to Saatjian.

These units use isolation as a form of discipline. “This practice of isolation, whether from family, and in this extreme case of isolation itself, can be expected to have the opposite effect as the one we would hope,” he said, explaining that solitary confinement, though intended to improve its victims’ behavior and social abilities, in fact, “typically leaves them unfit for social interaction.”

The interaction between the prison system and people with mental health disorders is equally deserving of attention, according to Riordan. “It’s happening more and more that people who are having a psychiatric crisis or are suffering from a mental health disorder are ending up in our jails and our prisons,” she said. Three times as many people with severe mental illnesses are in prisons as they are in mental hospitals — due mostly to the high cost associated with locked mental institutions — and 15 to 30 percent of people in jail are on psychotropic medications, she explained.

Many of these mentally unstable who end up in jail are caught in the “revolving door,” said Riordan, meaning police arrest these mentally ill offenders—often homeless or drug abusers — again and again, first for committing small crimes, then for repeatedly violating parole.

“These are very, very complex issues — the solutions are not simple,” she conceded. But Riordan believes she and her program, Families ACT, may be on the right path to finding these solutions. ACT, an intensive case management community treatment program established in 2007, not only costs the county significantly less per year than jails or mental hospitals, it provides its patients 24-hour access to case managers as well as rights often denied by prisons.

“It’s almost like being in hospital,” she said. Although space in the three Santa Barbara County Families ACT centers is limited, Riordan hopes the program will expand in the near future.

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