Calif. Prison Officials Release New Policies for Mentally Ill Inmates
On Friday, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials released policy updates that change how and when prison staff can use pepper spray and other corrective measures on inmates with mental illnesses, the Sacramento Bee reports (Stanton, Sacramento Bee, 8/2).
About 30% of the state's 133,000 adult inmates have a mental illness.
At a hearing in October, attorneys for prisoners showed two videos, including one that depicted an inmate in a mental health crisis unit being pepper sprayed after refusing to take medication. The attorneys said they had a total of 17 videos obtained from CDCR that showed prison guards using extreme force when inmates:
- Violated rules;
- Refused medication;
- Acted out; or
- Were involved in other incidents.
In April, a federal judge ruled that the state corrective department's use of excessive force against prisoners with mental health issues violates the inmates' constitutional rights.
Specifically, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton called the videos "horrific" and made recommendations for how CDCR could modify rules for using pepper spray and isolation units when dealing with prisoners with mental health issues (California Healthline, 4/11).
Details of Policy Updates
The new policy changes were established in recent months during negotiations with attorneys and a court-appointed special master. On Friday, the changes were presented to Karlton for approval (St. John, Los Angeles Times, 8/2).
The new policies call for a mental health provider to conduct an evaluation of the "totality of circumstances involved" before there is any use of force against an inmate. The evaluation must include:
- The medical and mental status of the inmate;
- The inmate's ability to understand and comply with orders; and
- A "cool-down" period, during which the mental health provider attempts to defuse the situation (Goode, New York Times, 8/2).
CDCR also has agreed to:
- Limit the amount of pepper spray used against inmates;
- Ban the use of pepper spray in some types of prison facilities (KQED's "State of Health," 8/1);
- Limit or eliminate the practice of housing inmates with mental illnesses in isolation cells (Los Angeles Times, 8/2); and
- Elevate disagreements between custodial staff and mental health providers over whether or not to use force against mentally ill inmates to higher-level prison officials.
Jeffrey Bornstein, an attorney for inmates, said the policy changes are "a great first step" and seem to "mandate more of a collaborative approach" (Sacramento Bee, 8/2).
However, Bornstein also noted that the "devil is going to be in the training and the acceptance of this new philosophy by the people involved" (New York Times, 8/2).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.