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Mentally Ill Prisoners in California 3 Times More Likely to Get Shuffled Around

CalMatters’ analysis of data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that, from 2016 to 2021, California prisoners in “enhanced outpatient” mental health treatment were moved three times more often, on average, than other prisoners. The data shows that incarcerated people in the system’s enhanced mental health program — which provides the highest level of outpatient mental health care for prisoners — averaged five moves during the time period, compared to an average 1.5 transfers for people in the general prison population. 

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In 1995, a federal court ruled that the department was not providing adequate mental health care to prisoners. The court eventually approved the Corrections Department’s plan for providing mental health care and appointed a special master to monitor and report on the state’s compliance.  
In 1995, a federal court ruled that the department was not providing adequate mental health care to prisoners. The court eventually approved the Corrections Department’s plan for providing mental health care and appointed a special master to monitor and report on the state’s compliance.  

By Byrhonda Lyons, Jocelyn Wiener and Erica Yee | CalMatters

California state prisons transfer people with serious mental illness far more frequently than other prisoners — sometimes moving them dozens of times — a CalMatters analysis of newly acquired state data has found.

The findings underscore a CalMatters investigation from earlier this year which revealed the state’s practice of shuffling around mentally ill prisoners, which some advocates say can be disruptive and damaging to these vulnerable people.

The story focused on the case of Adam Collier, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and anxiety disorder, among other mental illnesses.

Collier was serving a five-year sentence for exposing himself to women in public while high on meth. He was moved 39 times between 2016 and 2020 — bouncing among crisis units, state hospitals and seven different prisons — before he killed himself in Kern Valley State Prison in October 2020.

CalMatters’ analysis of data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that, from 2016 to 2021, California prisoners in “enhanced outpatient” mental health treatment were moved three times more often, on average, than other prisoners.

The data shows that incarcerated people in the system’s enhanced mental health program — which provides the highest level of outpatient mental health care for prisoners — averaged five moves during the time period, compared to an average 1.5 transfers for people in the general prison population.

One person, who was in and out of the mental health program, moved 75 times during the six-year period. The data does not identify any individuals.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Keramet Reiter, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “The seriously mentally ill people…bounce around a bit.”

CalMatters had requested the state’s transfers data on March 31, 2022; the department responded on Aug. 1 and Sept. 16. For its June story, CalMatters collected its own data about prison transfers for about a year, which generally mirrors the state’s records during the same timeframe.

“Transfers for an inmate are disruptive,” said Christopher Lisieski, the attorney representing Collier’s mother in a federal lawsuit against several prison employees. “Disrupting someone’s routine who’s severely mentally ill is additional stress and strain and can worsen mental health symptoms.”

Advocates, prisoners, and family members contend that, in cases like Collier’s, a steady stream of transfers reflects a system that too often fails to adequately care for people in mental health crises. These incarcerated people might bounce between prisons and short-term crisis beds without ever stabilizing enough to get better, they say.

In California, mental health care in state prisons is designed so that incarcerated people transfer to appropriate levels of care as their needs change. Treatments range from outpatient therapy in the general prisoner population to long-term hospitalization in treatment facilities within the correctional system.

Prisoners needing the highest level of care could be sent to state hospitals, which are separate facilities that also house people who are not in the criminal justice system.

But the system doesn’t always work perfectly. In several investigations, the Inspector General has determined that people who need it sometimes aren’t referred to a higher level of care.

In other cases, experts say, multiple transfers can mean the system is working and people are getting the care they need.

Department spokesperson Dana Simas wrote in an emailed statement that the state transfers prisoners for a variety of reasons, including court hearings, medical treatment, mental health treatment, changes in security level, patient safety, staff conflicts, misconduct allegations or parole.

In California, prison mental health treatment policies are governed by a federal class-action lawsuit — known as Coleman — on behalf of prisoners with serious mental illness.

In 1995, a federal court ruled that the department was not providing adequate mental health care to prisoners. The court eventually approved the Corrections Department’s plan for providing mental health care and appointed a special master to monitor and report on the state’s compliance.

“The department works closely with the Coleman special master and others on these matters, and always strives for what is in the best interest of the patient’s individual needs,” Simas wrote in an email to CalMatters.

Special master Matthew A. Lopes Jr. did not respond to CalMatters’ request for comment.

In Collier’s case, he moved so frequently that his mother, Susan Ottele of McMinnville, Ore., started “every single, solitary day” checking online to see which prison was holding Collier and why.

When the pandemic hit, the prisons went on lockdown, and Collier sat inside Kern Valley State Prison for seven months. It was his longest stay at any prison since 2016.

“With all these transfers, I’m fucking dizzy,” Collier wrote in a letter to Ottele in March 2020. Months later, at age 43, Collier killed himself.

The Office of the Inspector General investigated Collier’s suicide and found that the department had “poorly handled” Collier’s case. The inspector general’s March 2021 report described an array of internal problems, including clinicians improperly delaying Collier’s referral to a higher level of care and failing to adequately document his history of self-harm.

Earlier this year, Ottele filed a wrongful death complaint in federal court, alleging that prison guards failed to monitor her son and acted with deliberate indifference.

In court documents, state attorneys deny these claims, saying the guards were not aware of Collier’s history of suicide attempts. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation. Lisieski, Ottele’s attorney, said the case likely won’t be resolved for years.

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Activism

Call to Protect Geoffrey’s Inner Circle from Threatened High-Rise Development

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by reso-lution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and cul-ture of Oakland.

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By Ken Epstein

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a downtown Oakland Cultural Center that has featured live jazz and served music lovers and the Black community for decades, is now under threat from a proposed real estate development that could undermine the stability and future of the facility.

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by resolution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and culture of Oakland.

Now, the Oakland Planning Commission is considering a high-rise building proposed by out-of-town developers next to Geoffrey’s, which would jeopardize both the survival of the venue and the Black business district as a whole.

In addition to running a business that has been a crucial institution in the local community and the regional arts scene, Geoffrey Pete, founder, has utilized his business to offer meals for thousands of unsheltered individuals and hosted countless community events.

The following petition is being circulated in defense of Geoffrey’s and the Black Arts district (To add your name to the petition, email info@geoffreyslive.com):

“The African-American community in Oakland has been seriously damaged by developers and public offcials who are willing and sometimes eager to see African Americans disappear from the city. Black people comprised 47% of the population in 1980; now they make up only 20% of said population. In response to this crisis the 14th Street Corridor from Oak to the 880 Frontage Road was established as the Black Arts Movement and Business District by the City Council on Jan. 7, 2016, in Resolution 85958.

Tidewater, an out-of-town developer, is proposing to build a high-rise building at 1431 Franklin, which will damage the Black business district and the businesses in the area including the iconic business of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle at 410 – 14th St.

We demand that the Planning Commission and the City Council reject this predatory building proposal and proceed with plans to fund and enhance the Black Business District.”

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Activism

16th Annual MLK Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

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“…Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

The event was hosted by Urban Tilth and the City of Richmond. Event partners were Groundwork Richmond, Rich City Rides, Moving Forward, Hope Worldwide, The Watershed Project, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, Building Blocks for Kids, City of Richmond, Cal Cameron Institute, Friends of the Richmond Greenway; and Pogo Park.

The celebration made possible with the support of the Hellman Family Foundation, City of Richmond, and hundreds of individual donors.

The day’s schedule included volunteer projects along the Richmond Greenway and a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and community celebration at Unity Park.

Among the community service projects were opportunities to take part in projects to transform and beautify the Richmond Greenway Trail, like tending to the Greenway Gardens, trash pickup, and planting native plant and trees.

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Activism

Sheng Thao Sworn in as New Mayor of Oakland, Pledges New Direction for the City

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

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Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.
Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao appoints HNU’s Dr. Kimberly Mayfield as deputy mayor

By Ken Epstein

Sheng Thao, a daughter of Hmong refugees who overcame homelessness and domestic abuse to attend university and build a life for herself and her family in Oakland, received the official oath of office Monday afternoon as the new mayor of the City of Oakland.

Sworn in at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, she stood on stage surrounded by friends, family, and staff members. She was flanked by her son Ben Ventura, who performed a musical piece on the cello, and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao.

The mayor called on Oaklanders to join with her to create a more humane, inclusive, and just city. She spoke about her commitment as a progressive to significantly improve the quality of life for residents, making the city safer and cleaner, building 30,000 units of truly affordable housing, fostering jobs, promoting economic development, supporting small businesses and providing solutions to homelessness that recognize the dignity of the unsheltered.

“I know what we can do together, Oakland,” she said. “Our city’s’ best days are still to come. The Oakland that we all know is possible and within our reach.”

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

In her remarks, the mayor focused on the city’s long fight to become more inclusive and equitable.

“We believe everyone deserves a seat at the table, not just a few, not just the wealthy, not just the well-connected,” she said.

“Sometimes, we take our shared progressive values for granted, our advances toward justice and equality,” said Mayor Thao.

She reminded people that “a…century ago, our city was dominated by members of the Ku Klux Klan (where) Klan members burned crosses in our hills and marched through our streets. As recently as the1970s, freeways were made possible by tearing down thriving Black, Latino, and Asian communities,” she continued.

“We recognize what we have overcome together to remember what is worth fighting for every day…(and) to take stock of how far we still have to go.”

Promising a “comprehensive” approach to public safety to make all neighborhoods in the city safer, she said she would bolster anti-crime programs like Ceasefire and “we will fill (police) vacancies with home-grown police officers who know our community, who look like us.”

At the same time, she said, the city must increase opportunities for young people, reinvigorating the summer jobs program (for youth) and enhance the school-to-work pipeline so young people can gain experience and job skills.

She said she would beef up the many city departments that are currently operating on skeleton staffing, promising to fill the staffing vacancies that “plague our city.”

Mayor Thao said she herself is a renter, and that she “will fiercely protect Oakland renters. If you are a renter in Oakland, you’ve got a mayor who’s got your back.”

Speaking about the Oakland A’s proposed waterfront real estate development promoted by former Mayor Libby Schaaf, Mayor Thao said the city will continue negotiations to keep the team “rooted in Oakland.”

“Working closely with the A’s, I’m hopeful we can reach a good deal, (based) on our Oakland values,” she said.

The former mayor’s plan for building the proposed waterfront real estate development at the Port of Oakland was dealt a major setback this week when Oakland failed to secure more than $180 million in federal funds to help pay for infrastructure development for the project.

Speaking of the importance of the appointment of Mayfield as deputy mayor, the Mayor’s Office explained her role in the new administration:

“Mayor Thao was thrilled Kimberly Mayfield agreed to join her team because of her tremendous and longstanding leadership in Oakland. In recognition of her vast experience, it was decided that the best role for her would be as deputy mayor where she will be an instrumental part of the leadership of both the Office and Oakland.”

In her introduction at the Paramount Theatre, Mayfield said, “Today is not about political agendas…It’s about the power of the people…it’s a recognition of the rejection of the status quo. This new chapter begins with a mayor that understands how to build a culture that works for everyone. Thank you, Mayor Thao for the opportunity to serve.”

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