LA County to treat severely mentally ill inmates in the Twin Towers jail

Part of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles will be used to treat inmates with severe mental illness, a way to provide emergency care and evaluate those who may be a danger to themselves or others, according to an action approved Tuesday, May 16, by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The board’s action sets up a Jail Inpatient Unit, also known as the Acute Intervention Module, at the county jail at 450 Bauchet St., in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Initially, the county wants to provide 16 beds for those entering the unit, but an additional 32 beds are a possibility if approved at a later date. The county is seeking approval of this program from the California Department of Health Care Services, which is needed in order to operate the facility.

“This will create a more organized system inside the jail to deal with the most acutely mentally ill,” Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a co-author of the motion, said during an interview Tuesday. “You will have individuals who will not be diverted into the community. That’s why we need to start building this infrastructure.”

Dr. Brain Benjamin talks with Brian Case, 42, at his assisted living home in Santa Monica, CA Wednesday, January 25, 2023. Dr. Benjamin, a psychiatrist, works with People Concern Street outreach team delivering medicine and mental health care to unhoused individuals in Santa Monica. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The establishment of an acute mental health intake unit at the Twin Towers is an effort to satisfy the requirements of a consent decree imposed on the county and the Sheriff’s Department by the U.S. Department of Justice for inadequate mental health treatment and for a lack of beds for mentally ill inmates in custody.

“It is important for us to put something in place right now,” Barger said. “Especially since we’ve got the DOJ looking at what we are doing, and they are none too pleased.”

Obtaining mental health treatment is a continual problem for those in custody in county jails.

Since the huge Twin Towers jail opened in 1997, “it has become the largest de facto mental health institution in the United States,” the county reported.

About 6,800 county jail inmates participate in mental health programs with different kinds of treatment depending on need, the county reported. These inmates are usually treated in an outpatient setting.

However, the number of those with more severe or immediate mental health concerns, often called acutely mentally ill inmates, is rising, and there are not enough services and beds to treat them. The county reported that, on average, about 40 beds are booked each day at the jail facility.

This new program proposed in the Twin Towers jail is part of an effort to reach that segment of the inmate population and treat those who are most acutely ill.

In this process, when inmates are evaluated, they should be stabilized. Next, the county would decide where to place them — either into custody, or sent to community-based housing, according to the motion.

“We recognize the need for addressing this for those that cannot be put into a diversion program,” Barger said.

She could not say when the in-jail mental health module would be operational. But she expects quick approval from the state Department of Health Care Services. “The state knows of the urgency of it,” she said.

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