Shrinking Staff

County jail faces serious shortage of mental health services

Until a few weeks ago, it seemed certain that beloved Maricopa County Jail psychiatrist Leonardo Garcia-Bunuel had lost his job of 28 years.

Garcia-Bunuel had been informed of his firing March 5, in a terse letter approved by then-director of Correctional Health Services Joseph P. Murray.

"The intent of this communication is to inform you that Maricopa County wishes to exercise its option to cancel the remaining portion of our contract with you, effective June 4, 2002," the termination letter said. (CHS, a county agency that runs the jail's mental health unit, operates independently from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which provides security at the jails.)

Dr. Leonardo Garcia-Bunuel
Hector Acuña
Dr. Leonardo Garcia-Bunuel

That was it. No real explanation, no rationale, not even a thank you to the man who started the county jail's psychiatric unit in January 1974.

"Murray told me, 'We have to streamline, we have painful decisions to make, and that's it,'" Garcia-Bunuel tells New Times. "But he never gave me or anybody else anything specific."

The termination stunned the county's mental health and corrections communities, especially the 74-year-old Garcia-Bunuel's associates at the jail. For one thing, he's one of only two Spanish-speaking psychiatrists who work at the jail complex. More than that, he's been the heart and soul of an overburdened psychiatric team -- which includes nurses, counselors and others -- that is widely considered compassionate and effective.

Earlier this year, Murray also cut the pay of seven nurses who had been serving as unit managers.

Some of Garcia-Bunuel's peers decided to quit before Murray fired them, too.

"There has been so much turmoil," says Dr. Patricia Crellin, a well-respected psychiatrist who, until last week, had been based at the Durango Psychiatric Unit. "For them to treat Dr. Garcia this way -- a gentleman who is not just a good clinician, but a humble, truly caring person who is trusted by inmates and staff alike -- is appalling."

Dr. Diane Melazzo, an internist who just had completed her yearlong psychiatric training at the jail, wrote to county officials on March 10: "By further restricting an already limited workforce of mental-health care providers, the delivery of safe and effective health-care has been compromised. Furthermore, by termination of longstanding and respected physicians, it appears that employees, their needs and input, are of little value to this administration."

So perhaps it's not surprising that Joe Murray's own employment status with Maricopa County changed dramatically a few weeks ago. County manager David Smith fired Murray -- who'd been on the job only since last September -- after learning that the new CHS director had falsified his résumé.

Murray, it turns out, did not earn a Health Services Management doctorate or anything else from Columbia University, as he'd claimed in his résumé.

"We don't offer a Health Services Management degree, and we have never had a Joseph P. Murray matriculate here," an employee in the university's Office of the Registrar tells New Times. "This kind of thing happens more than you might think."

Maricopa County spokesman Al Macias concedes, "Our human resources people dropped the ball on this one. They checked his work record, but not his academics, which they certainly will be doing in the future."

Macias says Murray was one of more than 50 applicants for the $105,000-a-year job. "Mr. Murray was brought in to implement changes, which he did, and it led to complaints about him from several corners, which wasn't unexpected. But some of the complaints sparked the decision to take another look at everything on the table, including his résumé."

Murray could not be reached for comment.

The county hired longtime Arizona Department of Corrections employee Dr. Joseph Scalzo (a dentist) as CHS' acting director.

During a brief interview with New Times, Scalzo spoke generally of "looking hard at how everything works here." He declined to answer specifics and forwarded further questions to public information officers.

On April 18, Scalzo rescinded Garcia-Bunuel's firing, noting that "CHS recognizes the importance of retaining quality health-care professionals such as you."

The psychiatrist says he has agreed to continue treating his mentally ill patients during his 30-hour work week, for which he gets paid $73 an hour. But Garcia-Bunuel notes that the likely continued "streamlining" of CHS bodes poorly for the jail's growing number of mentally ill patients -- about 800 as of last week, or approximately 10 percent of those incarcerated.

"This hasn't just been my beef," he says. "Even with me staying on, we're down to about half the shrinks we had 10 years ago, with three times the number of inmates to deal with. The morale problem down here is enormous, because the staff thinks that the bureaucrats who run CHS and the county don't realize or care what the ramifications of not treating sick people are."

Jack MacIntyre, an attorney who works for the sheriff's office, agrees with Garcia-Bunuel. "Our detention officers and staff has been working very well with the people at CHS, such as Dr. Garcia, and that's what makes all these changes potentially problematic. If something happens at the jail because CHS is so understaffed, for example, Sheriff Arpaio is so high-profile that he's going to be blamed for things he has no control over -- the focus of lawsuits and everything else."

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