TURNAROUND: Last year, mental-health activists chided Sheriff Bill Brown for hiring retired custody lieutenant Mark Mahurin (above) to oversee the jail’s grievances process after widespread criticism about medical care for inmates. Now, they are praising the long-serving lieutenant for implementing positive changes.
Paul Wellman

After working for 31 years as custody staff, Mark Mahurin spent more time in the County Jail than any inmate. So the retired lieutenant was surprised at the immediate pushback he received last February when Sheriff Bill Brown announced he had appointed him as the jail’s new grievance coordinator.

The unique position was created after advocates with Families ACT! and the county supervisors ​— ​namely Janet Wolf ​— ​hammered Brown for unsatisfactory testimonies about the jail’s medical care, including prescription drugs, dental work, and mental-health treatment. How could someone from the inside, advocates asked, be trusted to scrutinize long-term practices or discipline his former colleagues?

But one year later, by many accounts, critics have been more than pleasantly surprised by Mahurin’s progress. Mahurin, who started working in the County Jail two months after he graduated from San Marcos High School in 1982, pledged total transparency when he took on the part-time job. “They thought we were going to cover things up and downplay them,” he said. “But we get paid to do it right.”

Mahurin explained that changes in the past year have been plentiful, largely because mental-health advocates have asked the right questions. The Sheriff’s Office convened a grievance oversight committee made up of activists ​— ​with Families ACT!, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) ​— ​and a former longtime prisoner. With the committee’s input, the department expanded the jail rule book from a tri-fold pamphlet to a 53-page booklet in Spanish and English. They increased inmates’ access to ACLU representatives, including by phones that transcribe their verbal messages. Inmates’ meds are dispensed within hours rather than a week. A psychiatrist is on-site five days a week rather than three. Previously disclosed statistics are now shared with advocates. A table outside the jail on most weekends allows advocates to hear from those visiting a family member.

“Lt. Mahurin has been willing to address a family’s concerns, [even] when we have to call him on a Sunday!” said Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Family’s ACT!

All this has happened as the widely condemned medical provider Corizon Health Inc. was formally replaced last month by California Forensic Medical Group. Activists expressed cautious optimism about the change.

Still needed, Mahurin said, is an electronic medical records system, which is expected to be implemented after the northern branch jail is completed in 2018.

In all, Mahurin said he is open to change protocols moving forward. “We’re not stuck with anything,” he said.


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