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Only One California Jail Has State-Mandated Psychiatric Treatment Center Licensure

by John E. Dannenberg

Although California law has since 1998 required all county jails that provide inpatient medical or psychiatric care to have a correctional treatment center license, only one (Los Angeles) has obtained one. The issue was highlighted when the San Jose Mercury News wrote that the Santa Clara County Main Jail (SCC), which has a 43 bed section that treats and stabilizes prisoners who are a danger to themselves or to others, has operated for five years without licensure.

In 1988, state legislators began a ten-year struggle to improve local jail health care. But putting regulations in place in 1998 was not a panacea for health care deficiencies. At most, only those new health care facilities being built after 1998 would be able to comply, unless older facilities were substantially remodeled.

Such is the case of SCC, which was built in the late 1980s. Although it is modern in many respects, its cells for psychiatric care are only 1/2 the size required by the new, 1998 regulations. Because of this deficiency, SCC cannot gain licensure. It is estimated it will take $4.6 million in renovation costs to meet the new standards. The conundrum is that while the local advocacy group Public Interest Law Firm (PILF) is considering court action to force compliance, SCC consultant HOK Advance Strategies praised the acute psychiatric unit's level of care as very high." SCC associate director of Adult Custody Health Services Maryann Barry commented, We don't see it as a problem. We know that we are providing the level of care that meets the criteria for licensure." SCC's attorneys argue that licensure is not needed because SCC only provides short-term treatment and stabilization consistent with California's Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The average length of stay is six to eight days. SCC rents empty beds to neighboring counties for $1,200 per day.

PILF director Kyra Kazantis nonetheless feels that having state Department of Mental Health oversight would be helpful in monitoring the quality of services. SCC spends $25 million per year in medical and psychiatric care. But SCC Lt. Stephen Smith cautioned that overhead costs of state supervision, standards and staff levels would greatly increase costs, possibly cutting into funds available for actual prisoner care.

Source: San Jose Mercury News.

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