Judge Mulls Release of Videos of Pepper-Sprayed Mentally Ill Inmates
This week, a federal judge will determine whether videos of California prison guards using pepper spray and other weapons on inmates with mental illnesses will be released to the public, AP/U-T San Diego reports.
The videos relate to a legal case involving the state's prison mental health care system, for which an evidentiary hearing is set for Thursday (Thompson, AP/U-T San Diego, 9/23).
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 (California Healthline, 8/1).
Details of Videos
According to court documents, the videos show prison guards:
- Repeatedly using pepper spray on inmates who suffer from asthma, which violates prison rules; and
- Spraying excessive amounts of pepper spray when a smaller amount would have accomplished the same purpose.
Eldon Vail -- an expert witness hired by inmates' attorneys -- said the videos show an incident where guards used pepper spray against an inmate who "was not lucid or coherent enough" to follow their orders.
Steven Martin -- a corrections consultant and the state's expert witness in the case -- said during a sworn testimony that guards use pepper spray too often because they lack proper training and because prison policies encourage its use.
In addition to pepper spray, Martin said that California state prison guards typically are equipped with:
- A collapsible metal baton; and
- Two chemical grenades.
According to court filings, witnesses for the state and for inmates agreed that California prison guards routinely are given weapons that are "unmatched by any other prison system in the country."
However, the witnesses disagree on whether the actions of the guards in the video should be considered as cruel and unusual punishment.
Response From Prisoners' Advocates, State
Michael Bien -- lead attorney representing inmates -- seeks to have the videos shown in court.
"This is what [state prison guards] do to real people with public money," Bien said.
However, Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) administration wants Karlton to view the videos in private.
State officials argue that the actions in the videos could be misunderstood and could violate the privacy of prison guards and inmates (AP/U-T San Diego. 9/23).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.