Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, May 6 @ 1:17 p.m. / Infrastructure, Jail
Del Norte Will Get $3.1 Million for Jail Improvements, Though Officials Are Unsure When and Say More Funding is Needed; Mentally Incompetent Inmates Still a Concern
Though Del Norte County can expect $3.1 million in federal funding for jail improvements, its lobbyist in Washington, D.C., told local officials not to expect those dollars this fiscal year.
Even when that money does show up in the county’s coffers, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what it would cost to rebuild the jail, according to County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez.
However, pending a decision from the Board of Supervisors, that $3.1 million could be used for a match to obtain state funding, Lopez told the Wild Rivers Outpost.
“I’m really kind of in limbo for when I think the money’s going to be here,” Lopez said. “The funding is there in the appropriations bill for Del Norte County jail improvements at $3.1 million — that’s all I know for certain.”
That $3.1 million stems from a request the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors initially made to Congressman Jared Huffman and then to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein via its lobbyist Greg Burns, of Thorn Run Partners, as part of the federal Community Funded Projects process. It was the first time in about 10 years Congressional representatives could submit Community Funded Project requests to the House appropriations committee.
In August, Feinstein’s office agreed to include Del Norte’s request for inclusion in the 2022 appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
According to Lopez, Burns informed him that Del Norte’s funding request had been approved in March. But because it’s been 10 years since Community Funded Projects, formerly known as earmarks, were permissible, federal officials are in the process of updating the guidelines for how local jurisdictions can spend that money, Lopez said.
Lopez said he’s not sure how long that process will take.
In the meantime, Lopez said, the county is seeking a consultant to conduct an assessment of the Del Norte County Jail.
The building was constructed in the 1960s. Its last renovation happened in the 1990s — before jail realignment, the opioid epidemic and an increase in the number of inmates statewide awaiting transfer to a California mental hospital because they were found incompetent to stand trial.
“(We) need a specialist to come into that building and tell us what needs to be done — can it be rehabilitated? Are there certain parts of the jail that are just too old to renovate?” Lopez told the Outpost. “We need an expert document that can guide our decisions from a budget perspective and a housing perspective, and then we have a document that supports those decisions.”
About 10 years ago the county installed new roofs and a new HVAC system at the jail, according to Lopez. Those were the most recent improvements at the jail, he said.
As of Wednesday, there are 78 inmates housed at the Del Norte County Jail, according to Del Norte County Sheriff’s Lt. Kyle Stevens. Of the 78 inmates at the jail, 60 are awaiting trial, 18 have been sentenced and two are at the jail through the California Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, which allows non-violent and non-serious offenders to be housed at the county level rather than a state prison.
There are also nine inmates at the Del Norte County Jail who have been adjudicated mentally incompetent to stand trial and are awaiting transfer to a state mental hospital, according to Stevens.
The ability to provide treatment for those nine inmates became a topic of concern at the Board of Supervisors’ April 26 meeting. At that meeting, supervisors unanimously approved a resolution allowing jail staff to provide medication to inmates who are adjudicated incompetent to stand trial even if it’s involuntary.
Designating the jail as a treatment facility is allowable under California Penal Code Section 1369.1, but County Counsel Joel Campbell Blair pointed out that the jail isn't designed to be a mental institutions. However, state mental hospitals are far from Del Norte County and "can be very selective of the patients they admit," he said.
Known as felony Incompetent to Stand Trial (IST) patients, there are currently 1,929 statewide on a waiting list to be admitted to a hospital or a community program run by the Department of State Hospitals, according to DSH spokesman Ralph Montano.
Speaking specifically to the number of IST patients from Del Norte County on that waiting list, Montano put that number at less than 11. He said the data has been “de-identified” to protect patient confidentiality.
“Counts between 1-10 are masked with ‘<11’,” Montano told the Outpost via email Friday.
The Department of State Hospitals has seen an increase in the number of felony IST patients since 2012. It attempted to respond to that growth by increasing capacity at its facilities, but year-over-year growth has continued and DSH’s ability to admit patients has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Montano.
To meet the needs of the growing number of IST patients, DSH has implemented several treatment strategies. Those strategies include partnering with 22 county sheriff’s departments to provide jail-based competency treatment programs that provides 443 bed capacity for ISTs as of this fiscal year and adding 186 more beds by the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the DSH created a diversion program, partnering with counties to transition ISTs from the criminal justice system to long-term treatment within the community.
“Individuals who complete their diversion program ultimately have their felony charges dropped,” Montano said. “To date, 24 counties have activated Diversion programs and it is anticipated that 820 felony IST individuals will be diverted.”
DSH’s 2021-22 budget also authorized $267.1 million to contract with community providers or counties to develop new facilities or renovate existing ones to provide alternative treatment options for IST patients.
In Del Norte County, the Board of Supervisors agreed to designate the jail as a treatment facility after photos of a befouled cell belonging to one IST patient were made public. The photos show the jail cell littered with trash, including several food trays, feces-smeared walls and with an overflowing toilet that was plugged with more trash and debris.
Del Norte County Sheriff’s Lt. Daniel Schneck said the photos were taken while the inmate was moved to another cell so it could be decontaminated. He said he didn’t know the exact amount of time the patient was in that jail cell in those conditions.
This particular IST patient has been waiting for a bed at a state hospital since November, Schneck said. He is allowed time outside his cell at which point he can dispose of any trash or debris that he might have and could take a shower if he wants, according to Schneck.
"These people committed crimes, but they need help and they need mental health help to restore competency," Schneck told the Outpost. "That's why we need to be sending them to Napa or the state mental hospital. Our facility is not designed for this, but we can't release them."
When asked if jail renovation would include providing a designated space for IST patients, Lopez said likely not unless additional funding was provided.
“We don’t have staffing that can offer treatment,” he said. “We have medical staffing there, which is the best medical company in the state — Wellpath — but you’re talking about a mental hospital. We are not a hospital by any means. We’re supposed to be a correctional facility.”
Lopez said he and county staff hope to have some plans in place by the time the $3.1 million in appropriations dollars reaches Del Norte. This includes reaching out to State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood to make them aware of the jail’s condition.
Lopez said the $3.1 million could be used as a local match for further state funding — money the county had failed to obtain prior to now because it wasn’t able to offer a local match. Back when it applied for that state funding, about 10 years ago, the county estimated it would cost $26 million to rebuild the jail.
“If I just had to do an educated guess, I think it would be double that right now,” Lopez said.
According to District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey, who attended a presentation on ISTs at a recent California State Association of Counties conference, $571 million has been allocated to DSH to develop more local treatment options.
Starkey said she and her colleague, District 1 Supervisor Darrin Short, are exploring whether the county can partner with Pelican Bay State Prison to get a state hospital facility in Del Norte County in an effort to whittle down the number of local IST patients at the jail.
"We've got a facility out there, why can't we get a Sempervirens or a state hospital up here?" Starkey asked, referring to the 24-hour psychiatric facility in Humboldt County as an example. "We're very rural, but we have a facility right in our back yard that we might be able to access."