EDITORIAL: Supervisors must address Fresno County Jail inmate care

August 14, 2013 

Fresno County doesn't dispute that it has mishandled psychiatric and medical services at the county jail.

The county is in settlement negotiations with the Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit in 2011 seeking to improve conditions at the jail. It is significant that until then the Oakland-based group had only sued state prisons over medical care.

And, as The Bee's Marc Benjamin and Barbara Anderson presented in an investigative report, County Administrative Officer John Navarrette says the county is weighing its next steps: "I think certain items were brought to our attention that we needed to address and correct, and we need to see if there are ways we can become more efficient and cost-effective."

We urge the Board of Supervisors to keep in mind the mentally ill inmates and their families, as well as our clogged courts and perpetually overcrowded jail, as they contemplate the options. We also ask them to rely on data -- not anecdotal stories -- and the professional judgment of the county's behavioral health officials.

There are county officials who excused the withholding of antipsychotic drugs from inmates, saying that many inmates fake mental illness so that they can delay court dates or abuse the drugs. Some inmates undoubtedly do this, but the county shouldn't base its policies on those inmates because the inevitable result is that others needing medication will go without and spiral deeper into madness.

About one-sixth of Fresno County inmates is sick enough to need antipsychotic drugs. The longer these inmates are unstable, the longer they remain in jail, taking up beds and delaying their trials -- sometimes for more than five years.

The county has added staff to expand jail psychiatric services and it has hired Dr. Mayur Amin as jail psychiatrist. Amin is seeing and treating more inmates than his predecessor. This is a good start to correcting the problems.

The county also might contract for medical and psychiatric services at the jail, as more than 30 California counties do. Our advice to the Board of Supervisors is to thoroughly check out the contractors and their results before deciding whether to outsource care. And, if providing proper care means dipping into the county's general fund, it must be done.

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