State fires execs at OCCC as jail's care for mentally ill inmates declines

State fires execs at OCCC as jail's care for mentally ill inmates declines
Published: Jul. 6, 2017 at 5:29 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 6, 2017 at 9:40 PM HST
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KALIHI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Oahu Community Correctional Center is once again violating federal standards for the care of inmates with mental illnesses, a Hawaii News Now investigation shows.

HNN has also learned that a prison executive who complained about the issues has been fired, the latest of several to not have their contracts renewed.

Dr. Mark Mitchell believes he and another mental health administrator were let go last month because they were trying to bring the level of care back up to requirements set by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I think we rocked the boat," Mitchell told Hawaii News Now.

He was hired as the branch administrator in Sept. 2008, a critical time for OCCC, when the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit claiming Oahu's largest jail had a pattern of "failing to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to detainees."

Just three months after he was hired, in Dec. 2008, Mitchell said the DOJ approved his corrective action plan to bring the jail up to federal standards.

The plan included hiring multiple people trained to work with the mentally ill.

The plan also set specifics on how quickly inmates are diagnosed, the number of treatment hours they receive, the process for suicide checks and pre-release requirements.

To do all that, Mitchell said he needed to fill vacancies.

"I was able to make the changes, make them quickly," he said. "I was able to shuffle tables in the organization when I needed to."

Mitchell said his plan was to get inmates stable -- either through medication or counseling -- then convince them to continue treatment outside of jail.

"Build some structures around them that provide those opportunities for them to kind of live a normal life, really outside of an institution environment," he said.

Finally, in June 2015 -- almost seven years later -- the DOJ agreed that OCCC was in compliance and dismissed the lawsuit.

But right after that deal was reached, Mitchell said services began to slide back.

And in July 2015, Dr. Lori Karan, OCCC's medical director, was fired.

Attorney Eric Seitz represented Karan and said the state Department of Public Safety did not try to maintain the level of services the DOJ required once the settlement was reached.

"When they fire people, like Dr. Mitchell, who in my view is just a hero … you fire those people because you have a mentality that says you don't trust them, you don't want to empower them, you don't want them to do what's necessary," Seitz said.

More employees were fired in the months following, including a psychiatric nurse.

And then last month, Mitchell and another mental health administrator also didn't have their contracts renewed.

DPS Director Nolan Espinda said he is not allowed to discuss why those employees were let go when the jail was already short-staffed and falling further out of compliance.

"I am not denying that there is an impact on vacancies that occur and that a snapshot in any given moment during the quality assurance survey may result in lower levels of service than would be ideal," he said.

Mitchell said the services that have deteriorated include the amount of counseling inmates with mental illness get. He said that went from 20 hours a week in June 2015, to just five hours a week now.

Mitchell said there simply aren't enough employees to maintain the services.

But Espinda insists a lack of staff does not mean patients suffer, though he acknowledged the ongoing issues have caused OCCC to fall out of federal compliance.

"I would hesitate to equate the number of vacancies with our ability to provide a safe, secure and healthy environment for the inmates," he said.

The agency says of the 37 positions at OCCC's mental health section, 27 are filled and they are looking to fill the remaining 10.

Mitchell, meanwhile, said OCCC isn't the only concern.

The U.S. Justice Department also wanted more mental health services added to other prisons and jails in Hawaii. Lawmakers even approved 21 new positions for that to happen, but most of the positions remain vacant. Copyright 2017 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2017 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.