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Lawyers say renovated jail no place for mentally ill

Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – Lawyers representing mentally ill defendants waiting extended periods of time for competency services are asking a federal judge for a restraining order to stop the state of Washington from sending these people to a renovated jail instead of a psychiatric hospital.

When the state Department of Social and Health Services failed to meet a judge’s deadline to provide competency services, it proposed a plan to send the defendants to the Yakima Competency Restoration Center. But lawyers for the defendants filed a motion late Thursday saying the center is inappropriate and unsafe.

“The use of jails to treat people with mental illness is inhumane, and a plain violation of the court’s order,” said La Rond Baker, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Washington. “It is an unsafe practice that is further evidence of this state’s continued disregard of its legal obligations.”

Carla Reyes, assistant secretary of the department’s Behavioral Health Administration, said they’ve worked diligently to expand competency treatment capacity and determined it was necessary to pursue a short-term strategy to use alternate facilities.

“We have worked closely with Comprehensive Mental Health, a respected, local provider of behavioral health services, to build a high quality, therapeutic competency restoration treatment program in Yakima,” Reyes said. “This program moves defendants out of jails and into appropriate treatment” as the court order required.

The agency’s legal team is reviewing the motion for a restraining order and will respond, she said.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman issued a permanent injunction in April that said the state was violating the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable citizens by forcing them to wait in jails for weeks or months for competency evaluations or for treatment to have their competency restored.

Pechman gave the state until Jan. 2 to fix the problems at state psychiatric hospitals and start providing services within seven days of a judge’s order.

But the state agency failed to meet the deadline and asked for more time. One solution they proposed was the Yakima center.

But in a motion for a temporary restraining order filed late Thursday, the lawyers for the defendants said that center would cause irreparable harm.

They said a court-appointed monitor and others have expressed serious concerns about a jail-based restoration program, including that it’s staffed with corrections officers and has not been retrofitted to address safety concerns.

Now that the facility is operating, these concerns are critical, the lawyers said. The facility is not prepared to house people with serious mental illness, and using it creates a dangerous risk to people sent there for services, the lawyers said.

“DSHS has rushed to implement an experimental program without thinking it through,” said Emily Cooper, staff attorney for Disability Rights Washington. “The result is that class members will receive inadequate care and suffer very serious harm. DSHS pursued this course of action even though its own expert found that jail-based restoration was not appropriate for Washington state.”

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