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Are mentally ill offenders in California jails safe?

Are mentally ill offenders in California jails safe?

On August 27, 2015, sheriffs at the Santa Clara County Main Jail found a 31-year-old inmate with a history of mental illness dead in his cell. His body was covered in feces and vomit.

The county medical examiner concluded that the man, Michael Tyree, died of massive internal bleeding from blunt force trauma. Three sheriffs deputies have been charged with his murder.

Tyree was in the jail because a judge ordered him to seek treatment for his bipolar disorder and drug addiction. The judge thought the man, who was homeless, would be safer locked up than wandering the streets until he could be admitted to a community treatment center.

Inmate advocates are suing a range of counties in California, including Alameda, Fresno, Monterey, Riverside, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Sutter and Yuba, for gross deficiencies in their handling of mentally ill offenders. They say inmates are not receiving care for their conditions, or if they are, it’s generally substandard. Advocates say that mentally ill offenders are often isolated from other prisoners in conditions of sensory deprivation that exacerbate and can even induce mental illnesses.

On any given day, between 16,000 to 24,000 people with mental disorders are detained in California jails, but there’s scant public information about them.

How many of them are serving time, and under what conditions? Are they receiving treatment or medication for their disorders? Are they alone in a cell? For how long and to what effect? Who is taking care of them and how much training do they receive?  These are the questions we will seek to answer for our joint 2015 California Data Fellowship.

There are no readily available answers. Each jail system tracks inmates in its own way, and they are required to report very little to the state. So we’re weaving disparate data from numerous sources throughout the state to better understand the treatment of mentally ill offenders throughout California.

This will help us see whether there are patterns—what programs are working, what aren’t. It will also give us a view of the impact of realignment and the passage of Proposition 47 on California jails.

We’ve compiled a list of key data sources that can provide answers, including California’s DOJ, state agencies, public safety organizations, researchers and lawsuits. And we’ve identified holes in the existing data—and strategized on how to fill them.

For example, we know California’s attorney general tracks in-custody deaths but does not appear to collect information on the mental health status of offenders who died. Can we find that information from county coroners, court or jail records and families of deceased offenders?

Our initial work will be to contact each county government and find out which data they keep on mentally ill inmates. We’re in the process of developing a consistent query for this task.

We expect to follow up on these initial contacts with public records requests, phone calls and emails. Some counties are likely to provide answers readily, others may obfuscate, while some simply will not be able to provide the data because they just don’t track it.

While we’re building our database, we’ll also be looking for people with experiences to share: people who have been incarcerated, had loved ones incarcerated or who worked or had some other professional contact with California’s jails. 

It’s a daunting task, but a worthy one.

We know that at the very least we will be able to show how little we know about this population and how much more we should know to ensure their safety and welfare.

[Photo by Martin Fisch via Flickr.]

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