Jail mental health provider and Sheriff’s Office need better communication, grand jury says

A 2022-23 Santa Barbara County grand jury report found that the Sheriff’s Office needs to improve the delivery of jail mental health services, mental health crisis prevention training, and interagency communication with its service provider, Wellpath. 

click to enlarge Jail mental health provider and Sheriff’s Office need better communication, grand jury says
File photo courtesy of Steve E. Miller
INTERAGENCY COMMUNICATION: After investigating several deaths of Santa Barbara County Jail inmates, a county grand jury found that the Sheriff’s Office and its mental health provider, Wellpath, need better communication surrounding inmates’ mental health issues to improve decision-making.

The jury looked into the death of a 40-year-old inmate, referred to as “NM,”  who had a history of substance abuse and mental health issues. 

NM participated in the Alternative Sentencing Bureau Electronic Monitored Home Release Program (EM Home Release)—which is designed to help reduce jail overcrowding by allowing “nonviolent offenders” to serve their sentences outside of the jail facility. Inmates in the program are still considered to be in custody of the Sheriff’s Office.

Custody staff approved NM’s application to move into the home release program but wasn’t made aware of NM’s history of mental health issues, the report states. 

“Citing concerns for medical records privacy laws, even in cases where such information could be critical to determine inmate housing, programing, and sustainability for the EM Home release program, the contracted provider of medical service at the jail, Wellpath, does not share detailed medical and mental health information with custody staff,” according to the report. 

NM was released with a list of clinical providers but no one monitored NM to see if he contacted any of those providers, and on Sept. 23—21 days shy of completing his sentence—he was found at his home dead of a fentanyl overdose, according to the report. 

In another investigation titled “Every Death in Custody is a Failure,” the grand jury also looked into a suicide of an inmate, KP, who hanged himself in his cell one day after witnessing his cellmate’s attempted suicide. The report found that KP’s medical files recorded disorders and suicidal ideation, but Wellpath, again, did not share information with custody staff.

“All of the custody staff and independent mental health professionals interviewed by the jury agreed that had KP’s mental history been known, KP would not have been placed back into the same cell, especially alone, and without constant observation,” the report stated. 

The grand jury recommended that Santa Barbara County and the Sheriff’s Office request county counsel to legally review the present coordination and communications process between Wellpath, or its successors, and the Sheriff’s Office custody staff to allow inmates’ mental health issues to be revealed for housing and program decisions. 

Aaron Fischer, a civil rights attorney and lead class counsel in Murray v. County of Santa Barbara—a lawsuit that addressed conditions at the county’s Main Jail and required significant expansion of mental health services for people who are incarcerated and need mental health care—told the Sun via email that the grand jury “is right to be deeply concerned.” 

“Its findings give even greater urgency to what is already well known: The jail’s deficits in mental health staffing and resources put incarcerated patients at grave risk every day,” Fischer said. 

The Sheriff’s Office’s first ever clinically driven mental health treatment units, which opened this month, is a key remedy outlined in the Murray case settlement and provides some hope that inmates with mental illnesses will get the care they need, he added. 

“But that work needs to be matched by a [countywide] effort to provide effective, community-based mental health treatment, diversion programs, and services that can reduce the untenably high number of people with mental illness who are now ending up at the jail,” Fischer said. 

In an emailed statement to the Sun, Sheriff Bill Brown said that the Sheriff’s Office needs to respond to the reports in order to provide a more accurate account of the agency’s custody operations and to show that the office is committed to providing “the best possible services within our jail system.”

“Our goal is to treat all inmates with dignity and respect—and afford them their legally required rights and services—while simultaneously ensuring safety and security of the inmates, our staff, and the community at large,” Brown said. 

The Sheriff’s Office’s responses will be sent to the grand jury no later than 60 days after the reports were provided, he added. 

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