Monday, July 16 , 2018, 12:23 am | Fair 66º


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Family of Autistic Inmate Says His Mental Health Issues Are Going Untreated in County Jail

Nancy Speer claims her 22-year-old son is not allowed visitors and initially was denied transfer to the Psychiatric Health Facility for a lack of bed space

The family of a 22-year-old Santa Barbara man in custody in the County Jail called Wednesday for him to be removed from solitary confinement and given the mental health care they say he desperately needs. 

Ben Warren was arrested last year on a charge of grand theft auto and has been serving a one-year jail sentence since then. But his family says Warren’s mental health diagnoses haven’t been adequately treated since he has been in custody.

Warren was diagnosed with psychosis and Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, as a child, and his family says he has refused medications since being in jail. As a result, he has steadily deteriorated, refusing food and water and even has self-inflicted cuts on his hands and arms. He has been kept in a padded safety cell, an isolation room in the county jail, for days, unable to have visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, Noozhawk confirmed that Warren had been transferred to the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility, or PHF, for treatment.

Under California law, if someone is deemed a danger to themselves, they can be taken involuntarily to an acute psychiatric facility for treatment.

Warren’s mother, Nancy Speer, said her son had a psychiatrist declare him a danger to himself this week but was told there was no room at the PHF.

There are only 16 beds for mentally ill people in crisis at the PHF. The county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services has begun contracting with a separate facility in Ventura for additional beds. However, no similar contract exists for inmates.

Warren was forced to stay in the safety cell until he was transferred late Wednesday afternoon when a bed at the PHF became available, Speer said.

When asked about the separate standard of care for inmates, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged the need for more beds. Spokesman Drew Sugars said Wednesday that the department is continuing to work with ADMHS on the lack of bed space. He said talks between the Ventura facility and the Sheriff’s Department took place recently but are in the early stages, and he couldn’t comment further.

“We’ve had preliminary talks to explore the possibility,” Sugars said. “What doesn’t change is the fact that this county has a beds crisis. ... It’s a continuous struggle to accommodate the mentally in Santa Barbara County.”

Sheriff Bill Brown has stated publicly numerous times that the County Jail has become the de facto facility for the mentally ill. But it’s a role staff at the jail admit they’re not equipped to play.

Sugars said that while he couldn’t discuss Warren’s medical issues because of privacy laws, he could talk about the jail’s procedures for someone in Warren’s position. He said that visitation could be affected by many things, including being in a safety cell or whether there are behavioral issues, such as being combative with staff. 

Sugars also said that people will be put into single cells for their own protection. Inmates are classified when they come in and separated for their safety — if they are particularly vulnerable, for example, or if keeping them in with other inmates would pose a danger to their safety.

“You don’t want inmates preying on them,” he said.

Sugars said the jail doesn’t not force inmates to take medications involuntarily, even if there is a court order. He also said jail staff doesn’t have a time limit for keeping people in the safety cells and can keep them in as long as necessary.

“It’s our goal to get people out of the safety cell as soon as possible,” he said, but added that the Sheriff’s Department has full discretion about how long to keep them in. He said he couldn’t say how long Warren had been in the cell.

Speer said that while she doesn’t make any excuses for his behavior, she’s imploring officials to treat him humanely.

When Warren was 21, Speer said it was getting more and more difficult to keep him at home when he wasn’t taking his medications. She rented a room for him in a friend’s home, with the only rule being he had to stay on his medications. When he wouldn’t agree, staying on the street was his only option. After that, Speer said her son’s life began to unravel.

Warren sold his car for a little cash, spending all the money by staying at a motel. After that money ran out, all of his belongings were stolen, including his shoes, while he was staying at a local shelter.

He tried to admit himself to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and when staff called Speer, she told them about his mental health issues.

“I said, ‘Call the county mental health unit,’” she recalled. “But they wouldn’t take him because he didn’t want to go.”

A county crisis assessment team, CARES, wouldn’t admit Warren to the PHF unit, and after a few weeks, Speer said he started to get nervous about being homeless. 

What happened next isn’t completely clear to Speer, because she’s never been able to ask her son directly about it. What is clear is that it led to his arrest.

Speer believes her son went to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County in search of a meal, but was refused. As he was walking out, she believes he saw a Foodbank van, empty but with keys in the ignition.

“I think he was angry they wouldn’t give him food and looked over and saw the van with the keys in,” she said.

He was arrested the next day and charged with grand theft auto. He was sentenced to a year in the County Jail, and Speer said a public defender had worked out a deal to put him on probation if he would agree to take his medications. He wouldn’t agree, and jail was the next stop.

“He doesn’t make good choices,” she said.

Now, his mother said, she gets bizarre letters from him in jail, “completely laced with evidence of psychosis.” She said the family hasn’t heard from him since Thanksgiving.

When a psychiatrist recommended that he be taken to PHF, mental health staff said there were no available beds. He had to remain in his cell, where Speer said staff have told her he’d become combative. 

“He’s like a caged animal, I think,” she said.

Since his transfer Wednesday, Speer said her biggest challenge now is making sure that Warren can stay in treatment long enough to recover.

“I guess the next extension would be for two weeks, but Ben needs months,” she said. “The damage incarceration has done is yet to be determined.”

When the family’s attorney visited Warren in the jail this week, she reported back that he was lying on the floor and had lost a significant amount of weight.

“Every time we’ve made arrangements to visit, we’re told he’s lost his visitation privileges,” Speer said.

She said her son has had issues as a teen, and even been to juvenile hall, but never had behavioral problems while in custody. 

“He isn’t somebody who wants to fight with the guards,” she said, adding that when her son is on his medication, “he’s the most delightful person.”

Warren even began tutoring children with autism several years ago, and graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA. 

“He’s bright and engaging when on his meds,” she said. “It is a travesty.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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