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Advocates call for more oversight of healthcare in Santa Barbara County jails

The Santa Barbara County Jail Healthcare Special meeting on Wednesday was a show-and-tell of the programs offered at local jails, training received by staff, and medical services offered, but sheriff’s officials also outlined challenges of programs still falling short, mostly due to staffing shortages and retention issues.

“For quite some time our sheriff’s office team has struggled to overcome significant challenges as it relates to recruit, hire, and retain sufficient custody personnel to operate our jail facilities,” said Undersheriff Craig Bonner.

After officials concluded their presentations, several community members spoke out, saying it’s too little, too late in the wake of six detainees dying in custody last year.

“What we have just seen is evidence of total failure of our society and our mental healthcare system, total failure,” said one speaker.

Advocates spoke passionately about the basic needs of detainees not being met.

“You get food, you get water, you get to go to a job that my taxpayer money pays for, and you get to go home to your family and have heat, these people don’t have that,” said another.

While other community members focused on taxpayer funds.

“We need to step up and get a mental health system that works in Santa Barbara. We’re spending a ton of money and not getting results.”

That’s $11 million a year, to be exact, and this isn’t the first time residents have called for action. Three years ago, advocates brought a class action lawsuit against the county for what they called dangerous and unconstitutional conditions in jails. A settlement was reached in 2020, but advocates say little has improved under Wellpath, the organization in charge of providing care for those behind bars.

“We go in to check on the charts, the charts are missing and there are no consequences,” said Maureen Earls, co-chair of CLUE Criminal Justice Workgroup.

Organizations like CLUE Santa Barbara and League of Women Voters claim Wellpath has continuously fallen short of meeting minimum requirements of care, which can cause harm to the current 853 jail residents.

“The persons of particular concern are the 60% who have documented mental health needs,” Earls said.

In addition to more oversight and accountability, advocates ask that consequences be levied on Wellpath should full compliance not be met.

“The good news is I looked at the first and second quarter and they reduced non-compliance by 50%, but it still leaves a third not getting the services they need,” Earls said.

Wellpath representatives, who attended the meeting, declined to comment.

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