The Fresno County Jail has been a place of terror and despair for mentally ill inmates who spiral deeper into madness because jail officials withhold their medication.
About one in six jail inmates is sick enough to need antipsychotic drugs to control schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other psychiatric conditions, but many sit for weeks in cells without medication previously prescribed by private doctors, say family members, lawyers and psychiatrists. If the inmates do get medication, it’s often at a lower dose or is a cheaper generic substitute that doesn’t work as well, they say.
Six years ago, the jail drastically cut back on psychiatric drugs. A county official said the intent was to curb drug abuse by inmates faking mental illness. Critics say it was part of the county’s cost-cutting efforts.
But the drug policy has raised costs significantly in other areas. Taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year on the inmates — above and beyond the cost of caring for them in the jail. As their mental conditions deteriorate, many lose the ability to help in their own defense and must go to state mental hospitals for treatment. Fresno County has sent nearly 400 inmates since 2007 to state mental hospitals, more per capita than all of California’s largest counties except Kern.
For many, a hospital stay is a short reprieve from psychosis. Medicine prescribed by psychiatrists at state hospitals isn’t continued once inmates return to the jail, and their instability returns. Repeated trips to state hospitals are all too common, judges say. One Fresno inmate was admitted to a mental hospital nine times before his trial ended.
Besides the cost of expensive hospital treatment, taxpayers also foot the bill when trials are delayed, courts are backlogged and the jail is overcrowded.
Fresno County officials say they meet their legal obligations for providing psychiatric services — and the 2010-11 grand jury, which investigated, concurred. But at least one judge wanted to hold a county official in contempt of court for the county’s treatment of mentally ill inmates. And the county now faces lawsuits from a group that previously only sued state prisons over medical conditions and from a family whose relative was killed by a cellmate with mental illness.
Advocates for inmates say they are beginning to see improvements. The county has brought in new leadership at the jail for psychiatric care and is taking steps to turn jail medical and psychiatric services over to a private contractor with expertise in jail medical care. Changes are needed, because failing to properly care for mentally ill inmates has left the community at risk, advocates say. All too often, families suffer the consequences.
The relatives of one mentally ill offender say the jail’s refusal to properly medicate him turned him into a ticking time bomb. Within a day of his release from jail, they say, Travis Fendley could no longer ignore the voices sparked by his schizophrenia that allegedly told him to strangle his grandmother. He is now in jail, charged with her death.
Fendley’s family says his illness was allowed to spin out of control — with tragic outcomes — while he was in Fresno County Jail last year on other charges.
It was a terrifying time for Fendley. It became even more so for his grandmother.
From family accounts, Fendley, 23, was agitated and nervous when he was released from Fresno County Jail on Dec. 17. His aunt, Becky Alford of Fresno, picked him up and planned to drive him to a psychiatric hospital.
Fendley warned his aunt: “Things aren’t going to turn out well.”
He hadn’t been given antipsychotic medication while in Fresno County Jail, his family says, and he told them “the demons in his head” were ordering him to hurt himself and his loved ones. He tried more than once to kill himself, including trying to slash his throat while locked up, his family says.
Alford tried to calm her nephew, but nothing worked. He jumped out of her car and started walking to his grandmother’s home in east-central Fresno. He called Alford from there, begging to spend the night with the 78-year-old woman.
A winter storm was coming and her nephew needed a place to stay, but Alford was fearful to let Fendley be alone with her mother. Joyce Frazier was frail, and Fendley had just spent 10 days in jail on a charge that he punched her. Frazier always forgave her grandson, and she would let him spend the night unless Alford forbade it.
Alford compromised: Fendley could stay — but only in the garage.
The next morning, Alford couldn’t reach Frazier by telephone — Fendley answered twice and said his grandmother was asleep. She rushed to her mother’s home. The dog was barking and the screen door, always secured, was unlocked. Fendley’s cigarettes were on the kitchen table.
“I went hollering down the hallway for my mom, and I found her laying on her bedroom floor — dead,” Alford said.