LOS ANGELES (CN) — Ventura County lets mentally ill people languish in jail without treatment for so long they often serve more time than they would by pleading guilty, prisoners claim in a constitutional class action.
"This has been a problem for years," the two lead plaintiffs' attorney Brian Vogel told Courthouse News.
Vogel said mentally ill inmates suffer increased risk of suicide, get beat up by other inmates, punished by guards, and often cannot get medication, much less treatment for their illnesses.
They also lose pretrial custody credits, which doubles their time compared to other inmates, he said. In addition, Patton State Hospital, where most mentally ill inmates are sent, has a long wait list.
Mentally ill inmates are called "ISTs" — incompetent to stand trial.
"Bad things happen to IST people while they sit and wait in jail without treatment,” Vogel said. “It's sad and unnecessary. The people who suffer most are the people who most need treatment."
He dismissed Patton's claim of funding shortages as no excuse for an "unfair" system.
"I think any excuses are inadequate to justify the abuse of mentally ill inmates like my clients," Vogel said.
California law requires that incompetent defendants get treatment before trial. Many such defendants cannot post bail and stay in jail until transfer to a state hospital.
Since the evaluation and placement process can stretch on for months, many incapacitated detainees spend more time in jail than if they had pleaded guilty, the federal complaint states.
Plaintiffs M.S. and O.M., suing through guardians, say Ventura County jails are not equipped to give incapacitated detainees the psychiatric treatment needed to stabilize them, and cannot force them to take their psychotropic medications except in emergencies.
As a result, incapacitated inmates are often clearly psychotic, disruptive and unpredictable. Jails punish them with prolonged isolation and denying them contact with loved ones, which exacerbates their illness.
"Plaintiffs have languished in the jail for weeks and months to the detriment of their overall mental health, waiting to receive court-ordered competency restoration services that defendants are statutorily required to provide," the complaint states.
M.S. was arrested in late August 2015 on suspicion of felony burglary. After a forensic psychologist found him incompetent to stand trial, he was referred for restorative treatment and admitted to Patton in late April 2016 — 150 days after he was found incompetent.
While in jail his mental state deteriorated and he broke several rules as a result. For example, he took off his plastic armband because he believed the devil had changed it into metal and threw feces on the wall after he ran out of toilet paper and the guards refused to bring more. The jail took away visits and put him in isolation as punishment.
O.M. was arrested in April 2014 for felony attempted robbery, was found incompetent to stand trial and transferred to Patton. Despite the recommended three-year commitment time, criminal proceedings resumed a year later.
His attorney requested another mental health evaluation. Though two doctors found him still incompetent and recommended transfer back to Patton, he is still in jail.
O.M. also says he was disciplined for breaking jail rules as a result of his mental illness. He hoarded pills he refused to take and fought with another inmate because he hears voices, which makes him agitated. He too was punished with isolation and loss of visits.
The complaint lists almost a dozen other detainees and putative class members with similar experiences.
Part of the problem is that the Department of State Hospitals refuses to accept a new detainee until another one is released, known as the "one in, one out rule." Though a small number of detainees are returned for trial each Thursday, there are often no transfers because no detainees were returned, the complaint states.
State records show that many of the roughly 15 IST inmates in Ventura County have been waiting for at least 30 days for transfer to a state hospital; one woman has been waiting six months. These delays have been the norm for several years and have more than 100 people, according to the complaint.