Federal Judge To Decide Treatment Of Mentally Ill Inmates
Thursday, November 7, 2013
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge is set to decide whether the heavy use of pepper spray by state prison guards against mentally ill inmates violates prisoners' civil rights, with closing arguments in the case beginning Thursday.
The trial in federal court in Sacramento featured the airing of a half-dozen videos -- since made public -- that showed pepper spray used multiple times on screaming inmates who refused to leave their cells. Officials said last month that they will change their rules to limit how much pepper spray can be used.
The state's own expert witness testified that guards use pepper spray far too often and much too heavily, and that his previous recommendations for changes were rejected or ignored.
"What these videos have demonstrated is an institutionally sanctioned way of torturing mentally ill inmates," Jeffrey L. Bornstein, an attorney representing inmates, said in an interview outside the Sacramento courtroom. "And while they're not doing it necessarily for the purpose of deliberately causing harm, it shows that they are consciously indifferent to the pain and suffering that they are causing."
Patrick McKinney, a supervising deputy attorney general who represents the state in the case, referred a request for comment to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"Use of force is always a last resort for our staff, and cell extractions are typically done to keep inmates from harming themselves or others and to ensure that they are placed in a more appropriate mental health setting," department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an emailed statement. "What you don't see on these videos is the hours of discussions that take place between the inmate and clinical staff before a cell extraction is ordered and the video camera starts rolling."
The dispute is the latest chapter in a 23-year-old lawsuit that has helped prompt sweeping changes in the state's prison system, including a sharp reduction in inmate overcrowding. Federal judges, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that reducing the prison population is necessary to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.
Yet one witness for inmates, Dr. Edward Kaufman, testified that little has changed in the 20 years since U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton first ruled that guards were using excessive force against mentally ill prisoners who refused to comply with their orders.
Kaufman first toured California prisons in 1992 and 1993 as an expert witness in the same lawsuit. Then, guards used Tasers and launchers that fired wooden or rubber blocks. Now they have substituted batons and pepper spray.
The excessive force complaint resurfaced after Karlton rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's attempt to end court oversight of inmate mental health programs in April.
Separately, the judge also is considering whether mentally ill inmates on death row are given proper treatment.
The hearing over excessive force centered on the videos, which were recorded by correctional officers as part of their official duties. The death row debate was punctuated by the story of a condemned inmate who punched out his own eyes with a pair of ball point pens. The psychotic inmate tried to kill himself three times at San Quentin State Prison but was never hospitalized. He finally hanged himself in April.
The judge and lawyers representing inmates and the state agreed that there have been significant improvements in caring for condemned inmates in recent years. The question is whether they have gone far enough or whether a licensed psychiatric hospital unit is needed at San Quentin.
Karlton's written rulings on both the alleged excessive use of force and the treatment of condemned inmates are expected in coming weeks.
In July, Karlton ruled that the California Department of State Hospitals shares the blame with corrections officials for providing poor care to mentally ill inmates. He said substandard care contributed to the deaths of two inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad in recent months.
He is scheduled to begin another hearing later this month to determine whether mentally ill inmates are improperly placed into segregation units where they lack for proper care.