Mental hospital wait costs Stanislaus taxpayers $204,000 a month

Lena Weib

OPINION AND COMMENTARY

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Tyree Penny, 26, of Modesto was ordered to receive mental health treatment in a state hospital on Nov. 9, 2021. But he was never transferred because of a state backlog, so — more than six months later — he remains in custody at a Stanislaus County lockup.

Tyree Penny, 26, of Modesto was ordered to receive mental health treatment in a state hospital on Nov. 9, 2021. But he was never transferred because of a state backlog, so — more than six months later — he remains in custody at a Stanislaus County lockup.

Jail is absolutely the wrong place for the mentally ill to get better.

Everyone in the justice system knows it. You know it, too. It’s intuitive.

Attorneys on both sides of Tyree Penny’s assault case knew it. So did the judge, who ordered the 26-year-old Modesto man transferred to the state hospital in Napa, where he might get proper treatment pending legal proceedings, more than six months ago.

But Tyree remains in a Stanislaus County lockup because the state has a backlog of inmates needing such help — 1,878 more than state hospitals have capacity to treat.

So behind bars, in an environment not known for healing, Tyree waits, and he waits. And the spiraling despair he felt — when he committed himself in a desperate cry for help more than a year ago — deepens.

“He’s telling us he’s just trying to hold on, but doesn’t think he can make it,” said his father, Tyrone Penny, who faithfully visits his son. “He says he doesn’t have a hope.”

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Tyree Penny, 26, of Modesto was ordered to receive mental health treatment in a state hospital on Nov. 9, 2021. But he was never transferred because of a state backlog, so — more than six months later — he remains in custody at a Stanislaus County lockup. Submitted by Tyrone Penny

The story began in March 2021, when Tyree called 911 because he knew he was losing it and needed help. He got some at Doctors Behavioral Health Center on Claus Road in east Modesto. But in August, he allegedly struck another patient, police were called and because the responding officer couldn’t communicate with him, Tyree was hauled off to jail, the police report says.

“He was taken out of care and placed in an environment that’s the opposite of what he needs,” said Tyree’s attorney, Chelsie D’Malta. “I’ve had honest, sincere conversations with staff at the jail. You can tell they’re overwhelmed. This isn’t the place for him. They can’t care for him, and they know that.”

At this point, anyone saying, “Maybe he should have thought of that before he hit someone” doesn’t understand mental illness. Likewise for anyone thinking that a sick person’s mind can heal itself if you just lock him up and let him ponder his crimes.

Three months later, Tyree got the judge’s OK for treatment in the state hospital. But what are such orders worth if the state ignores them, because of the backlog?

A statewide crisis

This “incompetent to stand trial” predicament, to use legal lingo, hit crisis stage about nine years ago. I wrote about it six years ago, when the statewide wait list had the names of 528 inmates needing restorative help before standing trial, including 13 waiting in Stanislaus County jails. At that time in 2016, Stanislaus residents were paying about $100 a day to house inmates, costing taxpayers $40,000 a month for this segment of the inmate population.

Lengthy delays also are unfair to victims and their families awaiting justice.

Current numbers?

The statewide wait list is 1,878, a 256% increase. Stanislaus lockups have 42 inmates waiting to be transferred, a 223% increase. And daily housing costs are up to $162, costing Stanislaus taxpayers $204,000 a month.

Folks, we’re going in the wrong direction.

COVID-19 made things worse, for sure. But the situation was dire even before the pandemic hit.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court proposal would help because it seeks to provide treatment and housing services before a mentally ill person is arrested. It’s controversial because there is an involuntary treatment component, and some people believe you should never force help on anyone.

Poppycock.

People with serious mental illness often don’t know they’re sick, and often are incapable of seeking the help they need. Getting it for them is compassion, not coercion.

I would sing a different tune if our current approach were working. It’s not. In fact, it’s broken, and now more than a third of inmates in our jails and prisons suffer with mental illness.

Including Tyree, whose defense against criminal charges has not even begun, yet he languishes behind bars.

‘Almost rotting away’

“He is acutely psychotic and unable to communicate his needs as a result,” wrote a state forensic evaluator. “He also expressed suicidal ideation in recent months. He is paranoid and volatile. These are all highly negative states to his mental health and well-being and represent harm to mental health if not treated.”

Such an evaluation helps assess whether a patient should move up faster on that list of 1,878 inmates awaiting transfer. For some inexplicable reason, those in charge of the list found that Tyree’s “mental condition does not meet the requirement to warrant an acuity review,” one wrote.

He’s acutely psychotic, suicidal, paranoid and volatile, but not bad enough for a closer look? What exactly does it take?

“He’s almost rotting away,” his father, Tyrone, told me.

Tyree’s parents refuse to give up, they say, because it looks like he’s nearing the top of the ever-moving list; his name is up to No. 20 among the current 1,878, they learned.

“It’s been a road,” Tyrone said. “It’s just wrong, to lock him up when he went for help.”

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Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.

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