Just outside the Santa Barbara County Jail, where her son is being held, Nancy Speer issued a tearful plea to officials Thursday to provide her son with the mental health treatment she says he’s been refused since being incarcerated a year ago.
Ben Warren, 22, of Santa Barbara, was arrested last year on a charge of grand theft auto and has been serving a one-year jail sentence. He’s been kept in solitary confinement in a “safety cell” for most of that sentence, according to Speer.
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. Speer recalled visiting Warren on Feb. 4 at the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility. She said he has refused food and water, and has lost about 80 pounds since being in jail.
He also had large cuts and scratches all over his body, which Speer said she was told by staff were self-inflicted.
“These physical wounds don’t even touch how far away he’s gone in his psychosis,” she said.
When an attorney visited Warren earlier this year, she found him in his safety cell, naked and lying on the floor, with only a quilted safety gown draped over him.
Warren’s case paints a troubling picture of how mentally ill inmates might go untreated while in jail. Sheriff Bill Brown has repeatedly told the Board of Supervisors that the county’s jail system ends up being the de facto facility for the mentally ill and that law enforcement officers are not equipped to help treat them. The county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services also has taken continual budget hits during the past several years, limiting its ability to help.
But Warren’s case poses a question: How badly must an inmate deteriorate before he or she is given treatment?
Under California law, if someone is deemed a danger to him or herself, the person can be taken involuntarily to an acute psychiatric facility for treatment.
Warren has been deemed a danger to himself several times, and taken to the county’s PHF, but has always been returned shortly after to a safety cell. At the jail, counseling is not available for inmates who are suicidal, only for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, according to Speer.
She told Noozhawk that ADMHS medical director Ole Behrendtsen said Warren didn’t qualify for conservatorship because he was not “greviously mentally ill.”
“I don’t know how on Earth he wouldn’t qualify,” she said.
Warren is scheduled to be released March 2, but Speer said she’s working to get him released early because of his grave condition. She also appealed to the public to speak up about the gaps in the mental health-care system.
“We’ve all been passive in allowing the mentally ill to be treated like this. ... People who are sick belong in hospitals,” she said, her voice breaking. “We do not have to tolerate this.”
A handful of mothers also shared during Thursday’s news conference how their children had ended up in jail because of untreated mental illnesses.
Suzanne Riordan, executive director of Families ACT!, which sponsored the news conference, discussed the history of declining mental health services in the state and the nation.
“The result is what we see today,” she said, adding that the group wasn’t blaming law enforcement for the gaps in care, but that she would like to see city and county leaders form a working group to look at the issue.
A sheriff’s deputy took notes during the news conference, and Sheriff’s Department spokesman Drew Sugars confirmed with Noozhawk what was said by Speer.
“This is an issue that we deal with,” he said.
Sugars said Brown was out of town and would not be making a public statement about Warren’s case.
“We do what we can,” Sugars said. “We don’t have enough bed space, PHF doesn’t have enough bed space. ... It really is a question for us as a society to address.”