Inmates’ Attorneys Call for More Oversight of Prison Mental Care
On Wednesday, lawyers representing California inmates asked a federal judge to expand oversight of the state's prison mental health care system to include the Department of State Hospitals, AP/U-T San Diego reports.
The department is responsible for mental health treatment at several state prisons (Thompson, AP/U-T San Diego, 6/19).
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that federal oversight of the prison system was needed after determining that an average of one inmate per week died as a result of medical malpractice or neglect.
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) implemented a plan to reduce the prison population by shifting many inmates from state prisons to county jails.
In April, a panel of federal judges rejected Brown's request to end a court-mandated prison population cap. The judges ruled that the cap is necessary to address substandard conditions that have resulted in unconstitutionally poor inmate care.
In their ruling, the judges said Brown had provided "no convincing evidence" that prison overcrowding is no longer a problem.
As of April, the prison population was at 150% of capacity, or 9,000 more inmates than the court-ordered cap.
On May 2, Brown filed a proposal to comply with the population cap.
However, Brown on May 13 filed a notice of appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court over the cap. Brown says that he plans to delay the implementation of his proposal during the appeals process (California Healthline, 5/30).
Details of Request
At the hearing, inmates' attorneys discussed the deaths of two Salinas Valley State Prison inmates who had histories of trying to harm themselves. One of the prisoners hanged himself and left behind a written message saying that his feelings of depression had worsened at the facility.
Prisoner advocates and an expert witness argued that the deaths show that mental health treatment has not sufficiently improved in the facilities under federal oversight (AP/U-T San Diego, 6/19).
Three psychiatrists who inspected or were employed by Salinas Valley testified that the facility has had:
- Long wait lists for prisoners to receive care;
- Premature discharges of inmates with mental illnesses; and
- Shortages of personal hygiene supplies, such as soap and clean underwear.
The prisoners' lawyers said the judge should order additional oversight at Salinas Valley and another prison in Vacaville.
The attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to:
- Prohibit the use of force and tear gas on prisoners with mental illnesses;
- Prohibit placing inmates with mental illnesses in solitary confinement;
- Mandate treatment for inmates on death row who have mental illnesses; and
- Call for the transfer of prisoners at a high risk of developing valley fever out of prisons infected with the fungus.
Attorneys for state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) said that claims of substandard mental health care in prisons are based on a "difference in clinical opinion" and do not show a "willful blindness" to inmates' needs.
However, the state acknowledged that the staffing ratio at Salinas Valley had changed from one doctor per 25 patients to one doctor per 35 patients (St. John, "PolitiCal," Los Angeles Times, 6/19).Debbie Vorous, an attorney for the state, said the new interim director at Salinas Valley is "actively recruiting" to address staffing issues (Small, "Represent!," KPCC, 6/19). 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.