Calif. county jails are crowded with people in mental health crises

The grand jury released its report on Santa Cruz County’s jails, which found that these facilities would benefit from measuring the efficacy of programs and services


By Michael Todd
Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — The last round of Santa Cruz County Grand Jury reports found six detention centers in Santa Cruz County are well run and in good condition with some signs of wear in an era of jails dominated by people enduring mental-health crises.

“We observed that the criminal justice system has become the front-line mental health caregiver in the county,” Forewoman Rocco Chappie wrote in the report. “Many individuals with mental health issues who violate the law are now going to jail instead of mental institutions. Jail staff are trained in detention and corrections and not in the care and treatment of mental health conditions. ... An inmate detained for poor life choices is not the same as someone suffering from a mental health condition, such as paranoid schizophrenia.”

The last round of Santa Cruz County Grand Jury reports found six detention centers in Santa Cruz County are well run and in good condition with some signs of wear in an era of jails dominated by people enduring mental-health crises. (Photo/Santa Cruz Police)
The last round of Santa Cruz County Grand Jury reports found six detention centers in Santa Cruz County are well run and in good condition with some signs of wear in an era of jails dominated by people enduring mental-health crises. (Photo/Santa Cruz Police)

The grand jury toured the Water Street Maximum Security Jail, Blaine Street Women’s Minimum Security Facility, Santa Cruz County Superior Court, Rountree Medium Security Facility and Ben Lomond Conservation Camp in 2016 and 2017.

Friday, the grand jury released its report on Santa Cruz County’s jails, which found that these facilities would benefit from measuring the efficacy of programs and services.

The grand jury has legal authority to examine any elements of special districts, and city and county governments, according to court records. The grand jury’s findings are meant to improve government operations. State law also empowers civil grand juries to inquire about the condition and management of county detention centers.

The Water Street facility continues to have problems with crowding, according to the report.

The day the grand jury toured the jail, the inmate population totaled 389, a total that exceeds capacity.

“The jail handles overpopulation with the use of temporary plastic beds known as ‘boats,’” Chappie wrote. “If the population reaches 439, the sheriff must request early release of inmates from a judge to decrease the population.”

During the 10 months before the report was issued, the Water Street facility’s daily average inmate population was 356. Its capacity is 311.

The Water Street facility, which previously had four escapes in as many years through the kitchen, has improved security, Chappie wrote.

“In the past, these incidents had often been classified as walk-aways because the door was left open,” Chappie wrote. “A new fence has been constructed surrounding this door and its adjacent area.”

The grand jury also found that inmates at the Water Street facility are housed only for medical reasons when they could benefit from the increased services offered at Rountree.

“This denies programming to an otherwise eligible inmate that may increase their ability to succeed upon community re-entry,” Chappie wrote.

The Blaine Street Women’s Facility, a two-story dormitory, opened in 1986 but has been closed since December. It closed because of consistent underpopulation.

“There was an ongoing problem with finding female inmates who qualify for minimum security,” Chappie wrote. Women who qualify for minimum- or medium-security detention now are housed at Rountree.

“The sheriff’s office is in the process of deciding other possible uses for the Blaine Street facility,” Chappie wrote. “The failure to use this facility while the jail system continually suffers from overpopulation appears to be an example of poor long-term facility planning.”

Sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Chris Clark said he was trying to gather a response but did not respond for comment.

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©2017 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

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