The difficult issue of medical services in County Jail moved forward Tuesday when the Santa Barbara supervisors decided to extend the Sheriff’s Office contract with Corizon Health, Inc. for a year and a half — but not before spanking Sheriff and Corizon representatives alike for about three hours.
Amid contention near and far about health care in county jails and pushed by activists fighting to keep the mentally ill out of custody, the supervisors decided in June to think twice about renewing a two-year, $10 million contract with Corizon, one of the country’s biggest correctional health-care providers that has contracted with Santa Barbara County for 20 years.
In June, the supes deemed the one-page agreement summary given to them inadequate, and they gave Sheriff’s personnel two months to provide evidence of Corizon’s performance; they asked for metrics about the screening process, the time it takes for inmates to receive psychiatric drugs, and details on complaint procedures, among other statistics. That frustration swelled two weeks ago when a bureaucratic mishap caused hundreds of pages of information — filling three fat binders — to go directly to the supervisors rather than to the Clerk-Recorder’s Office, where it would have been entered into the public record, and stalled the matter until Tuesday.
In his presentation, Undersheriff Barney Melekian, standing in for Sheriff Bill Brown, urged the supervisors to renew the contract for two years — rather than one — so the department could identify and establish benchmarks for best practices during the first year. In preparing for Tuesday’s hearing, Melekian said, he found no clear standards exist nationally. After a study, Melekian went on, the department could go out to bid in 2017 and use the study as the foundation for the competing bids.
But most of the supervisors flatly rejected that logic and decided to take a middle-of-the-road approach, extending the contract for 18 months, setting up a grievance coordinator to report regularly to the board and looking at other providers. The County Jail has seen its inmate population creep up — it was at 964 inmates on Tuesday — to levels that existed before the passage last year of Proposition 47, which reduced some theft and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. In the past, it has risen to more than 1,110 people.
The undercurrent of the bitterness between the supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office has been serious confusion about the new North County Jail slated to open in 2018. In recent months, all five supervisors threw sticks at Sheriff Bill Brown for being elusive about the operating cost required for the $120 million project, which will hold 376 beds as well as a 228-bed STAR (Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry) complex.
On Tuesday, Melekian — who has impressed friends and foes of the Sheriff’s Office since he came on as Brown’s number two in January — made a brief reference to the North County Jail when he described challenges the department faces in the current jail, which was built in 1971, added onto in 1987, and holds wings that look as if they could exist on Alcatraz Island. “I was trying to stay away from that,” he said, “but we do need a new jail.”
At a tour of the jail last week, Commander James Meter, who has worked in the jail for 25 years, told me he refers to the facility as the Winchester Mystery House, an architecturally haphazard mansion in Northern California. Custody staff are now in the process of creating a new exam room out of what is currently a broom closet.
Separate from the strains between supervisors and sheriff, a number of long-term mental-health advocates — with Families ACT! and CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) — have flooded the board with horror stories about friends and family who they claim suffered in jail.
Melekian acknowledged criticisms surrounding treatment of inmates, adding perception always trumps data. “I could stand up here and show numbers and charts and all of those things, and at the end of the day if someone’s loved one is in custody and there is a perception they are not receiving the health care to which they are entitled,” he said, “that is a problem.”
Melekian said there were 555 medical grievances from 2013-2015. Of those, he said, 58 percent of services were actually already in place but for some reason had not connected with the inmate. And for a quarter of the grievances, Melekian went on, steps were taken immediately to resolve the problem. A grievance is a formal process, whereas a “kite” is an informal request. Melekian did not know the number of kites that turned into grievances, but he said staff acts on all of them. “They do not vanish into the ether,” he said.
In initial deliberations, Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he found it “a little bewildering” the Sheriff’s Office did not know how Corizon’s services stacked up against other counties in California. What’s more, Carbajal went on, Corizon executives at the hearing could not say what percentage of county jails in the state had been accredited by either the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) or the state’s IMQ (Institute for Medical Quality).
Len Wood/Santa Maria Times