If County Jail has become Santa Barbara’s de facto mental institution — as pretty much everyone agrees it has — Sheriff Bill Brown found himself on the hot seat Tuesday as the county supervisors relentlessly demanded to know what kind of mental institution he planned to operate when he builds a new jail in North County.
Mostly, the supervisors wanted to know how much the mental-health programs there were going to cost, but they were also curious how many mentally ill inmates get locked up and how often they come back as repeat offenders. Brown and Commander Julie McCammon scrambled to come up with answers, but to the questions most on the supervisors’ minds, the reply was mostly, “It depends.” As for the data demanded, Brown pointed out that the jail’s current system is antiquated and that the supervisors had nixed his funding request this year for a more modern info-dredging system.
For his efforts, Brown got little purchase from the supervisors, who’ve grown increasingly impatient with the sheriff and his North County jail complex, which will cost millions of general fund dollars a year to operate. “For $40 million, I don’t think I can rely on ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Supervisor Peter Adam, adding, “which is what I’m hearing you say.”
The $40 million to which Adam referred is the cost of adding a 228-bed annex to the bigger 376-bed North County jail, dubbed the Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-entry (STAR) complex. The STAR annex is supposed to hold facilities designed and programmed to reduce recidivism, treat the mentally ill, and get addicts clean and sober.
Because the current jail is a crazy quilt of buildings and wings built over time with no design coherence, Brown pointed out custody officers have to escort inmates to mental-health programs, often located inconveniently across the campus, and back again. All this costs lots of money. In sharp contrast, Brown insisted, the new facility has been designed to incorporate treatment space in every pod.
In the course of the meeting, it emerged that 113 of the jail’s 1,011 inmates had prescriptions for psychotropic medications. Of those, 22 were participating in some mental-health program; 44 percent were deemed stable enough to be assigned to the jail’s general population. Supervisor Janet Wolf said she thought these numbers were low. Supervisor Salud Carbajal wondered how the “tiny pieces” — how he described the existing mental-health programs — were woven cohesively together. He bemoaned “the lack of strategy,” adding, “We have not cracked this nut.”
The supervisors noted they’d never heard of some of the mental-health programs Brown described in his report. For Brown and the board, such surprises seem to be an abiding bone of contention. Brown acknowledged several of the programs remain on the drawing boards.
In the proposed jail, 32 “special use” beds would be set aside for those in dire medical need and the mentally ill. As to the funding, Brown said, all programs would be paid for out of the Inmate Welfare Fund, a $1.6 million pot comprising revenues generated by commissary sales and inmates’ phone calls. One critic suggested food servings at the jail have become strategically smaller to encourage commissary sales.
The Federal Communications Commission appears poised to limit the ability of local jails to charge inmates high phone fees. Should that occur, Santa Barbara’s Inmate Welfare Fund will be out $400,000. That, in turn, would eat into programs.
Brown described the STAR complex as the single best chance the county had to turn people around. “We have a captive audience,” he noted. “The alternative is to not do anything meaningful that will help the mentally ill. The result is people will get worse, not better.”
The alternative, at least to Supervisor Adam, was find another place to divert the mentally ill: “We’re trying to do two things at once, and we may not do either one very well.” Trying to create a therapeutic environment for the mentally ill in a county jail, he said, was akin to fusing “a tractor store with an auto dealership.”