Dr. Lee Wong, the Pierce County Jail’s new mental health director, is learning the ropes of his new position after five weeks on the job.
He oversees mental health treatment for the jail’s 1,200 inmates in an environment where mental illness among the incarcerated has gained new legal attention.
Wong, 45, succeeds Judy Snow, who retired last year. Wong, a soft-spoken man, spent 20 years working with California inmates, most recently as clinical coordinator at San Quentin State Prison.
The News Tribune sat down with Wong recently to discuss his first impressions of the jail, his views on mental illness among inmates, and how he hopes to approach his new duties.
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Q: Does the “Dr.” stand for M.D. or a Ph. D?
A: Kind of a Psy. D. (doctor of psychology).
Q: What’s the distinction?
A: The Psy. D. is more focused on practice. The Ph. D. is more focused on research.
Q: You held a similar job at the California Department of Corrections, right?
A: I was at one particular site.
Q: Which site?
A: San Quentin.
Q: That place has some pop-culture mythology attached to it. What’s the reality?
A: I think the public perception is one thing versus reality and when you actually work there. They sensationalize it because it is the state’s only death-row facility.
Q: What made you want to come to Pierce County?
A: Part of it was personal — family reasons. And I found this job, and it sounded like a very natural fit for me given what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.
Q: You’ve been here a short time, about five weeks. What have you learned so far?
A: The (inmate) population feels very familiar.
Q: What’s the job?
A: My title is the mental health manager. What that I means is I’m managing the staff, and also looking at program policies and procedures, and making sure that we’re operating smoothly and efficiently and effectively as possible. I’m sure there’s much more that I can learn and understand about what’s going on here.
Q: What’s different about mental health as an issue now compared to when you started?
A: It’s definitely a much more significant issue in terms of people’s concern about individuals who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, and the reasons why they end up being incarcerated.
There’s a lot of human suffering occurring, and there’s inadequate funding and resources going to people who really need our help. Instead of getting treatment, oftentimes they end up being in jail.
It would be so much more helpful for these people and the community if they were actually getting treatment and not committing some crime because of the mental illness and being incarcerated. So I think people are much more aware and much more sensitive to this issue, which I think is a really great thing.
Q: Are there more people who are mentally ill, or is it just a function of our being more attuned?
A: I think the number is probably the same, but I think it’s just being aware that this is what’s going on and people are paying much more attention to it, and much more resources are being poured into providing treatment and addressing these issues.
Q: Your predecessor (Judy Snow) often said a jail is not a suitable place for mental health treatment. Do you agree?
Q: The answer might be obvious, but why?
A: This is not particularly the most therapeutic environment. This is a controlled law enforcement organization. Much of it is focused on providing safety and security for the public. So this is not a hospital, where somebody can get the amount of attention that they deserve.
Q: Where does your authority begin and end? When do you enter the picture and what can you do?
A: I report to (Corrections Chief Patti Jackson). But my role is, I consult with our staff throughout the day. If there is a particularly difficult case, I get involved. If there is some issue where someone needs to be transferred to Western State Hospital or a (psychiatric) bed, I get involved.
I’m also reviewing, every day in our computer system, these kites (notices from inmates and staff members). I’m intimately involved in our daily operations and well aware of what’s going on and how our services are being offered.
Q: Is it a real thing that particular inmates try to game the system by pretending to be ill, to get more favorable treatment?
A: We have a really great team of highly skilled clinicians who I think are very capable of detecting that.
Q: How would you describe the differences between the California corrections system, where you worked previously, and Pierce County’s system?
A: When someone is at an institution like a state prison system, we know they’re going to be there for months and months, or years, or their entire life. So we know because of that we can offer them much more extensive services. A lot more resources are put into that system.
Here at the county level, people are here for days, weeks, maybe months. That in itself limits our ability to really provide the extensive treatment that we can offer.
Q: What accounts for the national shortage of skilled mental health workers in the public sector, apart from pay?
A: Particularly in a forensic (criminal) setting, it’s a very specialized setting. Many people simply don’t have the experience, don’t have the interest or feel very intimidated by it. There’s a very limited number of people who have that skill.
Q: Could you do a psychological assessment of an inmate yourself if the need arose for some reason?
A: A general psychological assessment? Yes.
Q: But that’s not the normal course of your job here.
A: No. But I could.
Q: If you had to pick one outside interest that’s unrelated to this place and this job, what would that be?
A: When I get a chance, I love to travel.
Q: Where have you been?
A: I’ve been to India. Been to Egypt. Been to Taiwan, Mexico, Canada, throughout the Caribbean. I like to expose myself to different places, different environments, understand the cultural traditions and how people live. I think it’s a really good way to really appreciate what we have here. It’s also a new perspective on looking at our world.
Q: Any particular place that was illuminating to you?
A: I’d say India.
Q: How come?
A: Just the richness of the culture, the people — extremely hospitable and friendly. The extremes in terms of wealth and poverty, poverty beyond anything I’ve ever seen, even on TV. Very extreme. It really makes you appreciate what we have here.
Q: Anything I haven’t asked that you think needs to be addressed?
A: I’m just looking forward to working with Chief Jackson and getting to know this system better, and to really bring forth all my education, training and experience to really make this team, this department, the best that it can be and provide the highest level of service to this population. Because it’s very much needed.