Calif. prison addressing inmate mental health concerns with tablets

Officials have found providing inmates in solitary confinement with mental stimulation reduces risk to COs, other inmates

Tim Sheehan
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — When the Prison Law Office sued Fresno County over the medical and mental health treatment of jail inmates in 2011, one of the concerns was the mental health of inmates who are restricted to isolation or solitary confinement.

The result of the lawsuit was a settlement calling for broad changes in the way the jail does business – including its handling of inmates isolated in single-bed cells away from the general jail population. “There is research showing that for seriously mentally ill inmates, long periods of solitary confinement is detrimental,” said Fresno County Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie, who oversees jail and court services for the county.

“Now the goal is to house inmates in the least restrictive housing possible. … Instead of isolating them in a single cell by themselves, we try to integrate them into the general population,” Gattie said. “But for some people, that just doesn’t work.”

Fresno County’s jail facilities have about 3,200 beds. Of those, 57 (less than 2%) are single-bed isolation cells – 10 on each of the four floors of the main jail, and 17 in the South Annex jail that will be closed after a new jail addition is completed in May 2021. Gattie said most, if not all, of those single-bed cells are filled on a near-constant basis.

But under the terms of the court-mandated compliance plan that emerged from the lawsuit settlement, practices in the isolation cells – and throughout the jails as a whole – have slowly changed.

“What we try to do now is take a mental health approach” for inmates in isolation, Gattie said. “We’ve increased out-of-cell recreation time for all inmates, particularly those in isolation.”

Because the isolation cells don’t have televisions, one component of easing the mental strain of confinement is a program in which inmates can check out tablets loaded with educational software. The goal of the Edovo tablet program launched this fall in the Fresno County Jail system is to not only provide an educational opportunity for inmates, but also improve inmate behavior. As inmates complete lessons on the tablets, they earn points that can be redeemed for music, movies or games.

The tablets cannot access the public internet and the cameras on the devices are disabled. Neighboring Madera County introduced Edovo tablets to its jails several years ago.

“Inmates in isolation sometimes suffer from sensory deprivation,” Gattie said. “The tablets help with that.” Inmates in individual isolation are the only ones who can check out the tablets, which are available weekdays for two to four hours a day.

Along with an increase in jail staffing, changes in contracts for mental health and health services, there is more frequent reassessment of inmates for their suitability to be isolated from the general population. “In some cases they are housed separately because they need to be,” Gattie said, either for their own safety or the safety of other inmates.

Inmates with known gang affiliations are at risk of being attacked by rivals. “If we try to mix them together, what you get is assaults, serious injuries or, potentially, fatalities,” Gattie said. Inmates who have shown violence toward other prisoners are also candidates for isolation. “It wouldn’t make sense to house them with another inmate and give them another potential victim,” Gattie said.

With such a small number of isolation beds, Gattie described it as “the ultimate chess game” for the jail staff to assess the least restrictive confinement for an individual inmate “based on any gang affiliations, mental health or medical conditions.”

Two independent experts – one in mental health, the other in medical health – conduct annual inspections to assess the jail’s compliance with the settlement plan, and the Prison Law Office monitors conditions, too, Gattie said. “We’re working our way through this trying to improve conditions in the jail,” he said. “We’re cooperatively trying to work with PLO and the experts to get in compliance.”

Both in the early 1990s when Fresno County was sued for jail overcrowding, and after the 2011 lawsuit on behalf of inmates, “there was a lot of talk here about ‘Woe is us’ over having to make these changes,” said Gattie. “But the result of both of those were all these things that are small pieces to improve the system” for both jail staff and inmates.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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