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Lawsuit seeks more help for mentally ill jail inmates

Inmates are moved at the Los Angeles County Jail
Courtesy Los Angeles County
Inmates are moved at the Los Angeles County Jail

Seeking to end what they call the “Skid Row to jail cycle,” civil rights lawyers go to court Monday to argue that new federal reforms fail to help mentally ill people get the care they need as they are released from Los Angeles County lockups.

“This case is about homelessness prevention,” said attorney Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel. “By failing to provide needed assistance…the county sends mentally disabled homeless people back to the streets of Skid Row.”

Monday’s hearing is the first in the case. Public Counsel is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against L.A. County. That case resulted in an "historic" agreement in August to provide better treatment, according to federal officials.

The provisions will “usher in a new era” for treatment of mentally ill inmates in the county’s jail system, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said at the time. LA County jails house as many as 3,500 mentally ill people a day.

But Public Counsel lawyers argue the agreement falls short because it create discharge plans that  connect people to social services. They are representing former jail inmates who suffer from mental illnesses.

“I was released from jail at 2 a.m. with no notice,” said Derrick Thomas. “I received no information about community resources, and the only thing they gave me was my clothes.”

Thomas, a former Army sergeant who served two tours in the Persian Gulf War, has been cycling between the jails and Skid Row since 2009, according to Public Counsel.

People like Thomas need an immediate referral to a social worker, and transportation, advocates said.

“Re-entry—the transition point from custody back to society—is a very vulnerable moment, and that moment is an opportunity to connect mentally disabled people with the services that will keep them out of jail and off the streets,” said attorney Alisa Hartz of Public Counsel.

“When I was released, I was given a 30-day prescription for Risperdal, which I couldn’t fill because I had no money and didn’t know there were free pharmacies,” said Royal Williams, 44, who’s been homeless for 20 years and suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, according to Public Counsel.

Williams said he had “three pieces of paper listing maybe 50 places for housing, mental health care, and drug and alcohol treatment. I didn’t know which ones would be good for me.”

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a place where I could figure out who to call or where to go, so I threw the lists away.”