Justice Department Blasts LA County Jails

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles County subjects mentally ill and suicidal prisoners to unconstitutional conditions, the Justice Department said in a report on mental health services in the county's jails.
     "(T)he County violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by failing to provide adequate mental health services and protect prisoners from serious harm and risk of harm at the Jails due to inadequate suicide prevention practices," the Justice Department said in a 36-page letter dated June 4.
     In an accompanying 2-page statement, the U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles blasted the "deplorable environmental conditions" in the largest jail system in the county, which, combined with inadequate supervision, "deprive prisoners of constitutionally required mental health care."
     Fifteen L.A. County inmates have committed suicide in less than 30 months, "and the Justice Department concluded that some of the deaths may have been preventable with proper suicide prevention practices," the U.S. attorney said in the statement.
     Pinning part of the blame on the "rapid increase" of prisoners with serious mental health issues, the DOJ noted that seven overcrowded county facilities house almost 19,000 prisoners.
     Failure to supervise high-risk prisoners, inadequate mental health care services, and conditions at Men's Central Jail were some of factors the Justice Department cited.
     The Justice Department said the county's suicide review procedure "often includes inaccurate information and fails to remedy evident and repeated problems in order to prevent similar incidents in the future."
     The Justice Department said the jail system had taken steps to improve conditions in county jails after the parties in 2002 entered into a Memorandum of Agreement under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, enacted in 1980.
     "For example, the county has implemented nearly all provisions related to mental health screening at intake, developed a robust electronic medical records system, increased the number of clinical and support staff, and ensured that custodial staff receive initial and ongoing training in the identification and custodial care of prisoners with mental illness," the Justice Department said.
     The DOJ says it expects to stop monitoring the county on those issues because of "substantial compliance" under the memorandum, and praised the county's efforts in areas of community supervision and treatment.
     "The Justice Department will propose additional corrective action in the form of a court-enforceable agreement to address the remaining areas with serious deficiencies that violate prisoners' constitutional rights. This week's compliance letter includes a comprehensive list of recommended remedial measures that are designed to ensure adequate mental health treatment, supervision, suicide prevention and conditions of confinement for prisoners throughout the jails," the Justice Department said.
     The June 4 letter adds: "The Department of Justice acknowledges that many of the prisoners confined to the jails who have mental illness were failed by other systems. The delivery of mental health services in the corrections environment is difficult and presents unique challenges. Many of the prisoners may well be safely and more effectively served in community-based settings at a lower cost to the County. The remedies that we seek in order to ensure that the conditions in the Jails meet the minimum required by the Constitution - that ensure that prisoners are safe and that staff are not placed at an unreasonable risk of harm - can be implemented more effectively if the number of prisoners needing mental health services is reduced."