<b>OPEN WIDE:</b> Since 2009, Corizon has provided medical and mental-health care to inmates at the County Jail. The county may expand the contract to include mental-health treatment at its juvenile facilities.
Paul Wellman

In a meeting held with little fanfare from mental-health advocates or discussion about current institutional conditions, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors indicated Tuesday they are generally in favor of privatizing mental-health services at Juvenile Hall and Los Prietos Boys Camp.

The county has been contracting with Corizon ​— ​formerly Prison Health Services ​— ​since 2009 for physical and mental-health treatment at County Jail, as well as physical medical treatment in Juvenile Hall and Los Prietos Boys Camp. Now, county officials are looking to tack on Corizon-led mental-health services at the two juvenile facilities.

County Sheriff and Probation Department officials say privatization won’t change the level of care at the locations, but it will help save Santa Barbara County hundreds of thousands of dollars. The move, Chief Probation Officer Beverly Taylor said, would be an “opportunity to maintain a specific quality of service for youth in our care.” The contract ​— ​for two years with options to extend ​— ​is for $10.8 million.

As part of the agreement, the county ​— ​which is expected to save more than $300,000 in the deal ​— ​will extend its contract with Corizon at the County Jail, as well as medical treatment at probation facilities. The shift to privatization was not without significant controversy in 2009, and it is still under fire by many groups who say the alternative’s quality of care is unsatisfactory.

How the jail deals with mentally ill inmates wasn’t really touched upon at Tuesday’s board meeting, though officials called Corizon’s work “exemplary.” But according to a recent consultant report, 12 to 14 percent of the jail’s population is seriously mentally ill. It doesn’t have a dedicated mental-health unit and instead houses 24 men with mental problems in a single dorm because they don’t fit with the general population. “This unit is noticeably crowded and cramped,” according to the report. If beds aren’t available for inmates who have been placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold, they can spend up to three days in “sensory deprived cells” that have no sink, toilet, bed, or water access.

While some have questioned Corizon’s practices, the company just signed with Tulare County to work with juveniles ​— ​the only other California county where that is taking place. The Santa Barbara Probation Department surveyed seven facilities working in juvenile hall settings, and all rated the company’s work as good to excellent.

Taylor said Corizon is dedicated to evidence-based treatment, crisis intervention, and group and individual counseling, strategies known to be successful. She also said Corizon ​— ​which will be subject to accreditation standards ​— ​will face a rigorous certification process and regular reports from outside groups.

As part of the contract, Corizon will also provide pharmacy services to the Sheriff and Probation departments ​— ​which are required to provide health-care services to inmates and youth ​— ​at what officials estimate will be savings of 25 to 30 percent. Corizon currently provides evaluations by physicians, psychiatrists, dentists, nurse practitioners, and registered nurses, as well as X-ray and laboratory services.

The cost of mental-health services in probation facilities has continued to rise, and it is expected to go up 10.9 percent from this current fiscal year to the next, which begins July 1.

While quality of care wasn’t really examined Tuesday, officials did say everything currently being provided by county Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADMHS) will be offered by Corizon. Still, they couldn’t answer questions from the supervisors on specific protocol when it came to emergency situations perhaps needing an involuntary psychiatric hold, a determination that Corizon officials would be unable to provide.

The supervisors held off on approving the juvenile mental-health part of the contract until the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, an advisory agency to the board of supervisors, had a chance to review the protocols being set up and the supervisors’ questions could be answered. (In the meantime ADMHS will continue to provide those services.)

Generally, the boardmembers seemed to be in favor of the switch; 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, however, was not. “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” she asked. “Why are we going through this whole thing?” She pointed to comments from probation and mental-health officials lauding communication between the two departments, wondering why the county would abandon that arrangement. “Honestly, we don’t really know what we’re going to be getting,” she said. “We know what we have right now, and it works.”


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