Visiting Phil in County Lock-up

The Santa Barbara morning fog was just burning off the coast as I pulled into the county’s Psychiatric Unit Facility (“puff”) to visit my brother, Phil. A sign on the locked front entrance re-directed visitors to a side door, used only after hours and on weekends. Security doors, buzzers, and thick panes of wired glass all conveyed the solemnity of a prison, but when I pressed the visitor’s bell outside and gave my name, the amplified voice of the psychiatric nurse through the wall-mounted speaker was surprisingly friendly. Soon an older woman cracked open the heavy door. She was carrying what looked to be a half-pound loop of shiny keys around her waist, and she graciously admitted me to Santa Barbara’s only public mental facility, where several dozen adult males and females are housed and monitored in a threat-free universe, with three square meals a day and clean sheets twice a week.