Bickering and Inmate Care

The most encouraging news to come out of the Orange County Jail in years was the announcement last Wednesday that Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett Wieder and Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates will try to work out the "communications problems" that for so long have impeded the coordination needed to provide adequate health care for jail inmates.

The lack of adequate communication has long been a cause of conflict between the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail and is responsible for the health and welfare of the prisoners in its custody, and the county's Health Care Agency, which operates the medical ward and supplies the people who actually provide the physical and mental health-care services.

The inadequate communications were specifically cited last year by the county Grand Jury, which criticized such practices as keeping confidential the mental-health files on inmates and not making certain information available to jail personnel.

The relatively high number of inmate deaths at the jail in recent years is reason enough for a more coordinated approach to inmate care. Adding to the problem are strained personnel relations that have been heightened by several incidents in recent months.

In one case last November a sheriff's captain ordered several mental-health workers out of the jail when they refused to give him the psychiatric records of an inmate who had apparently committed suicide; Gates sought and received a court order to obtain the records. In another incident last month the jail's medical team threatened a work stoppage over a memo that Gates sent to the county board raising questions about how the medical team's psychiatrist handled that inmate-patient's care.

The last formal document that outlined the relationship between the sheriff and health officials is about 10 years old, and it precedes the existence of the county's Health Care Agency. Robert Love, the new interim director of the Health Care Agency, has said that without such a document the communication problems will continue to exist, along with confusion regarding the roles and responsibilities for health care at the jail.

The confusion and communications breakdown has caused enough problems. The Board of Supervisors must not let the health of inmates entrusted into public care continue to be jeopardized by the bickering between two county agencies.

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