Sacramento County jail finally addresses mental-health needs

An estimated one in three inmates has mental-health issues

Deputy chief of corrections Milo Fitch is the current commander of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, which is pursuing an $80 million state grant to expand vocational programs and build an intake and treatment facility to address its growing mental-health needs.

Deputy chief of corrections Milo Fitch is the current commander of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, which is pursuing an $80 million state grant to expand vocational programs and build an intake and treatment facility to address its growing mental-health needs.


Jail may not be the optimal environment to treat mental illness, but it’s fast becoming the go-to place for such cases.

In the two years since California realigned its prisons, shifting lower-level offenders to local counties, the number of inmates with mental-health issues doubled at Sacramento County’s main custodial facility. Thirty-four percent, or roughly 750 of the men and women incarcerated at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, have mental-health issues varying from mild to severe, said the facility’s commander, deputy chief of corrections Milo Fitch.

Over that same time frame, however, the housing units specifically geared for this population has remained the same: zero.

That could change.

An $88.9 million state-funded expansion of the jail could add 26 beds for the mentally and physically infirm by the fall of 2019. An outpatient clinic, more space for rehabilitation programs and improved security are also part of the conceptual plan. But it’s the mental-health resources that stand out.

“Currently, RCCC does not have any specific distinct and separate housing units for the treatment of inmates with significant emotional or psychological problems,” explains a staff report to Sacramento County supervisors, who approved the funding application last month. “Every outside assessment report … over the past 15 years has consistently indicated additional support space is required.”

As of now, inmates in need of acute psychiatric care are bussed more than 23 miles to the main jail in downtown Sacramento.

Sgt. Lisa R. Bowman, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said inmates can be housed separately, depending on the current population and its needs. “Of course, the money will help us design a space for that population,” she added.

Fitch said the number of inmates at his jail with some form of mental-health issue has doubled from 17 percent to 34 percent since October 2011, when the state realigned its prison population. That’s a big share of Rio’s fluctuating population, which numbered at 2,200 on October 24. These include inmates who are awaiting mental-competency evaluations to see if they can stand trial, or placement in a state hospital. Sacramento averages roughly 120 “restorative care transfers” to state hospitals a year, Fitch said.

Officials believe the construction project will reduce the number of inmates hospitalized outside and eventually pare down operational costs, even with the addition of $4 million in annual personnel costs.

Inmate suicides at both Rio and the main jail downtown have also been concerns, accounting for seven deaths in the last six years. On January 28, a 34-year-old Chowchilla man booked into jail on public-intoxication charges hanged himself in his cell using a piece of clothing. The jail recorded four suicides apiece in 2008 and 2005, and seven such inmate deaths in 2002.

Added prevention training and tier fencing at the jail have helped reduce instances of inmates taking their own lives, the Sacramento County Office of Inspector General said in its 2012 annual report. Jail psychiatric staff conducts routine suicide-prevention training with custodial staff, Fitch added.

While the county hopes to build on these efforts, there’s no guarantee its project will get funded.

The sheriff’s department, which operates Rio on 70 acres southwest of Elk Grove, put in an $80 million ask with the California Board of State and Community Corrections. The board is looking to scatter $240 million in tax-exempt bond money to construct criminal-justice facilities as part of Senate Bill 1022.

That may sound like a big pot, but it essentially breaks down to three maximum allocations for large counties.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Fitch told SN&R. “Los Angeles is always the front-runner. Another county is claiming it’s shovel-ready. … Hopefully, we can at least be third on the list.”

Sacramento won’t learn if it’s made the cut until January 2014.

“It’s exciting, because the facility down there is utilized for so many programs,” Bowman said.

That may give Rio an edge over other big jails. Bowman said the board will consider what offender rehabilitation programs each county currently has, and how successful they’ve been in preventing inmates “from going back to a life of crime.”

Along with erecting a two-story medical intake building, Fitch envisions building a state-of-the-art cook-chill facility to serve 18,000 meals a day—equal to a large hotel—and augment an existing culinary program. A new laundry facility would double as a vocational program. There would also be a welding and fabrication shop to replace the garage inmates currently learn in, as well as classrooms and a computer lab.

If the state approves Sacramento’s bid, construction would begin in 2017. The county needs to put up nearly $8.8 million of its own money to qualify.