Local advocacy group Families ACT! and several community members gathered for a press conference yesterday outside the Santa Barbara County Jail to address the growing issue of inmates receiving inadequate treatment for psychological disorders.
Members of Families ACT! — founded in 2007 after a series of Santa Barbara dually-diagnosed patients died in the winter of 2005-2006 — appealed for an overhaul of inmate rights in correctional facilities and the mass reallocation of funds toward mental health services. The nonprofit aims to help mentally disabled patients convicted of crimes reenter society as productive citizens.
Nancy Lea Speer, the mother of 22-year-old inmate Benjamin Warren suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a long-time autism advocate. Speer became increasingly concerned that her son, who has been incarcerated for 11 months on charges of grand theft auto, was not receiving appropriate medical attention for his disabilities after he was imprisoned last year for stealing a food truck while homeless.
According to Speer, wardens found Warren curled up on the floor of his “safety cell” naked and placed him in solitary confinement — something she says may exacerbate his autism — for attempted suicide. Speer said Warren has been refusing to eat, drink or take his medication and has lost up to 80 pounds since his incarceration.
“We are dealing with a broken system treating broken people,” Speer said. “The mentally ill, by and large, do not belong in this jail, but they are being warehoused there. Estimates are the statistics are astounding at how many people in this jail have issues that just need loving treatments.”
However, Speer said counseling services are only available to inmates struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. Warren lost his visitation rights and received intravenous fluids at Cottage Hospital before being transferred back to the Psychiatric Health Facility, which only contains 16 beds for those with mental disabilities.
While the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. reports that they are working in conjunction with the county’s Dept. of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services to address the pressing need for space, Sheriff Bill Brown has publicly referred to the jail as a de facto destination for inmates with mental disorders.
In June 2011, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury issued a 19-page report chronicling a “target group” of mentally ill inmates who are at significant risk for premature death as a result of inadequate treatment while incarcerated and a high potential for substance abuse. According to the report, some 30 percent of inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail are given psychotropic medications, though the facility’s staff is not trained to administer treatment for mental illnesses.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Debra Ulrick, mother of a 21-year-old who experienced several manic episodes during his imprisonment, said the correctional system lacked the resources to attend to mentally ill patients.
“Officers lack the proper training in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, which is really understandable because this should not be a primary function of correction officers anyway.”
Ulrick said her son expected to receive off-site residential treatment, but signed a plea deal during a hallucination that resulted in a five-year sentence. According to Ulrick, the court-appointed psychologist labeled her son mentally ill but treatable, and saw no signs that he was “criminally-oriented.”
Families ACT! Coordinator and Family Advocate Suzanne Riordan, who lost her son at the age of 23 to depression, addressed the ongoing crisis in Santa Barbara and called on city officials to take action.
“We would like a representative from the city council, a representative from the county supervisors and someone from the county CEO office to attend our meeting,” Riordan said. “We are going to work on this together.”