The Orange County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday requested $9.2 million from the Board of Supervisors to increase the number of beds for newly booked inmates with mental illness.
The request is for a planned expansion of the Intake Release Center, a temporary housing unit where inmates are booked before being transferred to Central Jail in Santa Ana or the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.
Approval from the board would expand the number of beds in the mental health observation unit from 115 to 540.
The Sheriff’s Department is converting cells that were previously used by general population inmates — not expanding the jail’s footprint — for the addition.
To staff the expansion, the Orange County Health Care Agency plans to hire 119, full-time correctional mental health employees and four part-timers in fiscal 2019-20 at an expected annual cost of $16.9 million.
“After taking an in-depth tour of the Intake Release Center about a week ago, all of these recommended items for the CEO’s recommended budget here are definitely needed,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said.
The supervisors signaled in a nonbinding straw vote they were willing to fund the project.
There isn’t a concrete timeline yet on when the additional mental health beds would be added, said Robert Beaver, senior director of administrative services for the Sheriff’s Department.
The project will also provide “step-down” beds, which are reserved for inmates who are mentally ill but not in a crisis that requires around-the-clock observation.
“It’s really changing how we need to operate the jails and part of that is adding the people and changing the physical layout,” Beaver said.
The increasing number of mentally ill inmates, as well as lawsuits from family members of inmates who have committed suicide behind bars, have spurred the county to adopt a strategic plan to prevent futures deaths.
Jail reform advocate Daisy Hernandez of the ACLU of Southern California said more needs to be done for those who aren’t behind bars.
“Increasing the number of Orange County Health Care Agency staff might be positive for the population in jail but expanding the system of care behind bars is not the solution,” Hernandez said.
The county should instead allocate more money to provide mental health care in communities, she said.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said his members are supportive of the county’s plan.
“Anytime you’re bringing your services directly to inmates, it’s better security-wise,” Dominguez said.
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielLanghorne.