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New Use Possible for Old Ojai Jail

Two supervisors want a study on converting the honor farm into housing for mentally ill.

May 30, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

With the Ojai women's honor farm on the verge of closing, two Ventura County supervisors are raising the prospect of turning it into housing for the mentally ill.

Steve Bennett and Linda Parks will ask at Tuesday's board meeting for a study of the conversion possibility.

The 117-acre site has been a jail and then an honor farm since 1957. Budget cuts, however, have prompted Sheriff Bob Brooks to plan for its closure in mid-July.

That will leave a large county housing complex empty as pressure mounts to provide adequate shelter for mentally ill residents. Earlier this month, the Ventura County Grand Jury pointed out that the county has lost units for the mentally ill, falling well behind neighboring Santa Barbara and Kern counties in its ability to help a tough-to-place population.

In an interview Thursday, Bennett sounded the same note.

"We now spend money to send people outside of the county and even outside the state," he said. "We don't get to control their treatment as well; some may be staying in treatment longer than necessary."

Whether a jail with dormitories housing more than 30 inmates at a time can be easily transformed into a treatment center for the mentally ill is unknown. Government requirements for housing the mentally ill are different than those for housing inmates, despite the large number of mentally ill prisoners in county jails.

"It's a very specific-use kind of facility," Brooks said. "And there are problems with the land -- an earthquake fault, nitrates in the soil and steel-and-concrete buildings that would be very expensive to demolish."

In any event, workers have begun clearing out storage areas on the farm and plan to transfer its 200 inmates to the County Jail on Todd Road by mid-July.

Bennett and Parks are asking for an initial assessment of the idea by the county Behavioral Health Department. If it seems feasible, a more exhaustive study will be done by consultants, Bennett said.

Until then, many questions will go unanswered, including the facility's capacity and the type of patients best suited for it. How residents in nearby Ojai will respond also is unknown.

"You have to look at all the alternatives rather than just one," said Mayor Joe DeVito, who had not heard the idea before being reached by a reporter.

Advocates for the mentally ill have lobbied for new housing for more than 200 mentally ill residents on county land off Lewis Road outside Camarillo. But such plans would not affect the honor farm conversion, Bennett said. "We're not in danger of winding up with too much housing," he said.

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