From Vilification to Congratulations

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

November 19, 2020

A couple of years ago, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department was being vilified for its mistreatment of a mentally ill inmate, who died after being strapped into a restraint chair for nearly two days.

Now, the Sheriff’s Office is celebrating a statewide award for its efforts in changing the way mentally ill inmates are treated in jail.
The Sheriff’s Office and SLO County announced it had received the 2020 “Challenge Award” from the California State Association of Counties.

“In the category of ‘Administration of Justice & Public Safety,’” Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said, “San Luis Obispo County won for the Sheriff’s Office Behavioral Health Incentive Program.

“This program is committed to reducing the number of days individuals with severe mental illness are in County Jail and provide them with tools to increase their positive social interactions and decrease their rates of recidivism.”

How it works is “the program rewards inmates when they practice proper hygiene, clean their cells, assist in cleaning shared/common areas, engage in programs offered, exercise, attend mental/medical health appointments, and interact with others,” Cipolla said.

The program has significantly decreased the number of jail assaults, Cipolla said, and has “greatly reduced the time inmates have been placed in isolation cells.”

“We have made significant positive changes in our jail in the way we manage our mentally ill population,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “I am pleased we have been recognized by a statewide organization for this honor, which only serves to reinforce our dedication to this issue as we strive to keep improving.”

Under the program, the Sheriff’s Department reorganized where inmates are housed, gave staff special training and created specialized positions and also contracted with the California Department of State Hospitals “to implement a Jail Based Competency Treatment Program or JBCT, which is designed to provide care, treatment and services to assist patients in becoming competent to stand trial.”

The SLO Sheriff’s Department beat out a record 363 entries from counties throughout California, and was one of just three to receive recognition in the category.

The 2018 death of Atascadero resident, Andrew Holland while tied naked to a restraint chair in an isolation cell for some 46 hours and a subsequent multi-million dollar settlement with his family, became the main issue in the sheriff’s election of 2018. The Holland Family spent a lot of money trying to oust the sitting sheriff.

Much of the public was outraged when surveillance video of Holland’s ordeal was published by local media. Even the County Grand Jury issued a blistering report on the treatment of mentally ill inmates, including a lack of beds with County Behavioral Health for people in crisis.

Though incumbent Sheriff Parkinson defeated challenger Greg Clayton, it all served to prompt the department into taking action with its overall health programs at the County Jails and the treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Great strides have apparently been made in both medical care and mental health care at the County lockup. Though there continue to be deaths in custody, there has not been repeat of the Holland tragedy.

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