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Officials Consider Sending Mentally Ill Prisoners to Camarillo Hospital

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

State officials are considering sending mentally ill prisoners to Camarillo State Hospital as one of many long-term proposals to preserve California’s patient-starved network of mental health hospitals.

The idea has drawn fire from those who fear their mentally ill relatives would be transferred to other hospitals if Camarillo State becomes a high-security psychiatric facility for convicted criminals.

Moorpark resident Lita Biejo has organized a task force to battle the proposal, which is in its formative stages and could ultimately be scrapped.

“The state Department of Mental Health is being pressured to make one of the facilities a correctional facility,” said Biejo, who has a 30-year-old nephew at Camarillo State undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. “We need an institution for our mentally ill as well as our developmentally ill. I think Camarillo State Hospital is one of the best.”

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Barbara Hooker, the state Department of Mental Health’s assistant deputy director of long-term care services, said officials must consider this and other proposals to shore up the mental hospital system.

Hooker said that one proposal involves sending convicted criminals who need psychiatric treatment to Camarillo State. Under that proposal, those convicted of sexually violent crimes could also be sent to Camarillo under a new law signed by Gov. Pete Wilson that mandates state care for sexual predators.

Another proposal would make Camarillo a treatment facility for those arrested but deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. Under this proposal, Camarillo could also treat mentally ill convicts on parole and people who plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

If either proposal is approved, Hooker said, Camarillo’s 494 developmentally disabled patients and 395 mentally ill patients would most likely be transferred to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk.

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“You would not put a population with another population that would be incompatible,” Hooker said.

With the introduction of new medications and counties assuming greater responsibility for treating the mentally ill, a growing number of patients are seeking treatment outside the state hospital system, said Camarillo State spokeswoman Lanette Castleman.

Since 1960, the number of patients in state hospitals has dropped from more than 35,000 to below 5,000. During the same time, Camarillo State’s patient population has fallen from about 7,000 to about 900.

Meanwhile, Hooker said, the number of criminal offenders shipped to state mental health facilities continues to increase. Hooker said the two hospitals that now house mentally ill criminals--Atascadero and Patton State hospitals--are at capacity.

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“Our two facilities that are the most secure are basically full,” Hooker said. “As you look at how to plan for the future, you look to what facility makes the most sense to handle that population.”

Hooker said officials working on a management plan for the state’s mental health hospitals will not decide Camarillo State Hospital’s fate until sometime next year. Even then, the Legislature would have to approve any changes.

Castleman said the hospital already houses about 250 developmentally disabled patients who have been arrested mainly for minor crimes, but have not been convicted because of their disability. But she said that hospital security would have to be substantially upgraded to handle a more serious criminal population.

Castleman said Patton and Atascadero hospitals have tight security, including high fences with razor wire, closed-circuit cameras and a large guard staff. County mental health officials put the cost of converting Camarillo State in the tens of millions of dollars.

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Castleman said the hospital may have no choice but to make adjustments if Camarillo State’s non-criminal population continues to decline while the mentally ill population statewide continues to climb.

“We have to change with the times,” Castleman said. “We have to do what we need to do to keep this facility as a valuable resource.”

Biejo, however, vowed to fight any effort to transform Camarillo State into a criminal institution for the mentally ill.

“Maybe it will be a difficult battle,” she said. “But we don’t believe in giving up just like that.”

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