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LA County eyes private firm for expansion of care for mentally ill inmates

Los Angeles, UNITED STATES: The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles where hotel heiress Paris Hilton is currently being held in custody for medical treatment, 08 June 2007 Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Sauer ordered Hilton returned to a Los Angeles County jail to serve out the remainder of her 45-day sentence for violating probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case.  AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Under the proposed contract with Liberty Healthcare, more medium-security inmates with serious mental health problems would be transferred from the overcrowded Twin Towers jail to the Pitchess Detention Center North Facility in Castaic.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to consider a motion Tuesday that would hire a private firm to manage the expansion of care for medium-security inmates with serious mental illness. 

County Department of Health Services Director Dr. Mitchell Katz proposed that the supervisors approve a two-year, $3.8 million contract with Liberty Healthcare Corporation to augment existing mental health services for that category of inmate.

Under the contract, Liberty would hire a mix of county and private mental health workers to beef up the staff at the Pitchess Detention Center North Facility in Castaic. Currently that facility treats an average of 65 "Moderate Observation Housing level" inmates who have been transferred from the overcrowded Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A. Under Liberty's management that number would grow to 320, according to a Sept. 20 letter Katz sent to the board.

Inmates designated for Moderate Observation Housing "cannot be housed in the general population because of their mental illness," said Katz. They "are often on psychiatric medications and are expected to require a full array of mental health services and services for treatment of co-occurring substance use disorders."

The mental health services currently provided by county staff at Pitchess have prompted "very positive feedback" from inmates and L.A. County Sheriff's Department employees at the facility, he wrote.

The Castaic facility has more space, including outdoor areas, noted Dr. Mark Ghaly, the Department of Health Services' director of community health and integrated programs.

The contract would enable Liberty to hire 10 to 15 employees from the private sector, along with 10 to 12 county workers to staff the operation, he said.

The hope is that after the contract ends in Nov. 2018, the county would fully take over the program, said Ghaly. The county turned to Liberty to get the effort off the ground because a private firm can hire and deploy staff much more quickly than government, he said.

Liberty Healthcare provides an array of management and clinical services for the public sector in 31 states, the District of Columbia and Bermuda, according to its website. "These include psychiatric services management to hospitals, statewide networks ... residential treatment centers ... correctional facilities, nursing and veterans homes, and long-term care facilities," it says.

The firm has contracted with San Bernardino County "to provide comprehensive mental health and programming services to their four correctional facilities," according to Katz.

This story was updated to reflect that Dr. Katz' lowered the amount of money requested to $3.8 million.