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Group Seeks to Block Use of Old Jail to House Mentally Ill

Ventura County is studying the cost of converting the former honor farm, but some Ojai residents have safety concerns.

September 09, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

What should Ventura County do with 117 acres of rolling, oak-studded hill property in the Ojai Valley, now that it is no longer used for a jail?

There's no ready answer to that question -- and there may not be for months or even years.

But residents who live near the shuttered facility already have a firm idea about what the county should not do with the former women's honor farm: turn it into a treatment center for people with serious mental illness. Neighbors have organized a group called the Committee for Honor Farm Options to fight that possibility.

"We know the facilities are already here, but is the setting appropriate?" said Riki Strandfeldt, a local Realtor and committee member. "We are concerned for our children, our community and our property values."

The neighborhood concern was prompted by a request by county Supervisors Steve Bennett and Linda Parks to study the cost of converting the property from a medium-security jail to a mental-health treatment facility. Supervisors agreed unanimously in July to proceed with a preliminary analysis, cautioning that budget constraints may prove daunting.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston's staff has begun looking into the conversion to a more hospital-like setting. Government requirements for housing the mentally ill are different from those for housing inmates.

The honor farm proposal might allow the county to save money by treating the mentally ill closer to home, Johnston said. About 50 patients are sent to out-of-county facilities each year at a cost of about $2.5 million.

Since Camarillo State Hospital closed in 1996, the county has lacked a locked treatment facility for severely mentally ill patients who cannot live independently.

Advocates for the mentally ill frequently lobby the Board of Supervisors for more housing. Earlier this year, the Ventura County Grand Jury chided supervisors for falling behind Santa Barbara and Kern counties in providing beds for a hard-to-place population.

Members of the honor farm options committee say they recognize the need for more housing for the mentally ill, but question the wisdom of placing it close to schools, homes and seniors.

The former honor farm, on rural property between Ventura and Ojai, is bordered by large homes on Rice Road along its eastern edge and by the Ventura River to the west.

One worry, neighbors say, is that patients will be released into their neighborhoods unmedicated and without a home. Crime will rise, they say.

Or patients might try to escape. While escapes were virtually unknown when the facility housed 200 female inmates, a mental health treatment center would not be truly secure, they contend.

"The sheriff had guns. These are just nurses," said Amy Hagen, whose home is close to the site.

"These people are there involuntarily, because they have been deemed dangerous, and the county can't ask our community to take on that risk," she said.

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