Judge Finds Calif.’s Treatment of Mentally Ill Inmates Unconstitutional
On Thursday, 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, AP/U-T San Diego reports (Thompson, AP/U-T San Diego, 4/10).
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.
In June, lawyers representing California state inmates asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to expand oversight of the state's prison mental health care system to include the California Department of State Hospitals. Karlton ordered an investigation of prison-based mental health care facilities managed by DSH.
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, which were obtained from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, that showed prison guards using extreme force when inmates:
- Violated rules;
- Refused medication;
- Acted out; or
- Were involved in other incidents (California Healthline, 10/2/13).
Details of Ruling
In a 74-page ruling issued this week, Karlton called the videos "horrific" and recommended how CDCR could modify rules for using pepper spray and isolation units when dealing with prisoners with mental health issues (AP/U-T San Diego, 4/10).
In his order, Karlton noted that the department had made "overall significant progress" in revising its use-of-force policies, but added that more needed to be done.
Specifically, he said the department must:
- Develop a plan within 30 days "to limit or eliminate altogether" the use of segregation units for patients with mental health issues if it is likely to exacerbate their health problems (Stanton/Walsh, Sacramento Bee, 4/11); and
- Within 60 days stop holding prisoners with mental illnesses in isolation units solely because there is no room for them in more appropriate holding conditions.
Karlton also ordered the state to alter its policy for strip-searching prisoners with mental health issues as they enter and leave housing units.
He granted the state 60 days to work with a court-appointed special master to make alter its policies.
CDCR spokesperson Deborah Hoffman said prison officials are reviewing the order (AP/U-T San Diego, 4/10).
Michael Bien, the lead attorney for the prisoners, said, "It is a solid, well-thought-out order that should go far in remedying the problems exposed during the hearings." He added, "It is our hope that, rather than fighting this order, the state will work with us in implementing it" (Sacramento Bee, 4/11).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.