<strong>Healthy inmates, inc.:</strong> Rod Holliman, right, spoke on behalf of the Tennessee-based Prison Health Services about how the company could benefit the county jail system. Officials will announce in July whether the company will take over County Jail mental health services.
Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara County’s jail mental health system officially is for sale. The prospective buyer-a private Tennessee-based prison health company-is already lined up with a July 1 move-in date.

This is the way the Sheriff’s Department broke the news at a special meeting of the Santa Barbara County Mental Health Commission on Tuesday, informing the council of the proposed transition of mental health services from county Mental Health to the private company Prison Health Services (PHS). The pitch, helmed by Sheriff Bill Brown, touched on the department’s various budget problems and the need to improve mental health services in County Jail, which oversees the largest number of the mentally ill in the county. “Over the years-with the closure of mental health facilities across the state-County Jail has become the de facto mental health facility,” Brown explained. “The jail is not the best place for people with mental health problems; however, there will always be people in the county’s jail with mental illness because of the nature of the crimes committed.”

According to the proposed plan, PHS would sign a two-year contract to operate its jail mental health services, with an option to extend the contract for an additional two years. A contract with PHS would allow the jail to obtain what officials call crucial mental health objectives currently unmet by county Mental Health: Institute for Medical Quality accreditation, two on-site licensed social workers, 24/7 coverage for mental health assessments, and others. With one out of five incarcerated Americans suffering from mental illness, Sheriff’s officials say the ailing, 38-year-old jail is not only grossly overcrowded-around 50 inmates above capacity each day-but unable to meet its mental health needs.

A decision on transferring jail mental health services to PHS has already been reached on the part of county officials. The plan was received with unanimous support from Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Department, and of course PHS. Additionally, Mental Health officials stated that the new management would operate with no additional cost. Ann Detrick, county Mental Health director, said her office understands how important programs such as the 24/7 coverage for mental health assessments are to the jail. “I support what the Sheriff is planning to do,” Detrick said.

“I respect Sheriff Brown a great deal, [however] I am shocked by this group’s decision,” Green said.

Brown said the PHS contract would save more than $500,000 in a so-called apple-to-apple comparison. In layman’s terms, PHS could provide the services conducted by Mental Health, plus more, $500,000 cheaper. Both Brown and Mental Health officials assured council and community members repeatedly that the plan to privatize jail mental health services is not a reflection of the performance of current county Mental Health staff. However, George Green-a member of SEIU Local 620, representing jail mental health workers- argued that the plan would wrest jobs away from Santa Barbarans. “I respect Sheriff Brown a great deal, [however] I am shocked by this group’s decision,” Green said. “The county must first engage in bargaining with the union before such a plan in finalized.”

Following the conjoint presentation from the Sheriff’s Dept. and PHS, some community members on hand responded skeptically to the proposed sale of jail mental health services. From mental health misdiagnosis to a recovery-based therapy plan – where recovered mental health victims aid in the rehabilitation process – meeting attendees argued over the best course of action for the community and possible ways to reform the current system. Kate Smith raised a number of questions to the PHS panel regarding the use of the planned additional staff members and the cost of those positions. “I want to know how much these new positions will cost,” she said. Smith continued by outlining the incarceration of the mentally ill in County Jail as one of the biggest injustices taking place in Santa Barbara today.

Rod Holliman, PHS’s president of community corrections, stated his company could solve the county’s jail mental health problems. “Medical practice behind bars is the most complex,” Holliman said, noting that PHS provides mental health services to 40 facilities and possesses the resources to improve what’s currently being offered. To the company’s credit, PHS’s accreditation record includes the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association-one of the oldest and largest correctional associations in the world. The private company made its money in the incarceration business, boasting $576 million in annual revenue for 2009.

Lacking a quorum, the Mental Health Commission was unable to rule on the proposal, however 3rd District Councilmember Ann Eldridge spoke of it confidently. “We cannot take a vote today, but I feel very comfortable about what I heard,” Eldridge said. If Brown has his way, Santa Barbara will welcome PHS in July.


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