State To Limit Use of Pepper Spray on Inmates With Mental Illnesses
During a federal court hearing on Wednesday, an official with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the agency will change its policies to limit the use of pepper spray on prisoners with mental illnesses, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The move comes after attorneys for inmates showed two videos depicting prison guards pepper-spraying and then subduing inmates with mental illnesses (St. John, Los Angeles Times, 10/23).
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.
Details of Videos
Attorneys for prisoners showed two videos during a hearing earlier this month, including one that depicted an inmate in a mental health crisis unit being pepper sprayed after refusing to take medication.
The attorneys said they have a total of 17 videos, which were obtained from CDCR as part of the lawsuit. They said the videos show prison guards using extreme force when inmates:
- Violate rules;
- Refuse medication;
- Act out; or
- Are involved in other incidents (California Healthline, 10/2).
On Wednesday, Karlton ordered that the videos be released publicly.
During the hearing, CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer said the videos prompted the department to change its policies for using pepper spray on inmates.
He said the new rules will:
- Limit the amount of pepper spray that guards can use on inmates; and
- Prohibit guards from using canisters of pepper spray meant for crowd control in small cells.
"Staff out there really aren't using every bit of common sense and every bit of training, so we're going to tighten down those guidelines quite a bit," Stainer said.
He said the new policy could be in place by the end of the year (Los Angeles Times, 10/23).
CDCR spokesperson Deborah Hoffman said the new limits would not apply in emergency situations (Thompson, AP/U-T San Diego, 10/23).
State Defends Pepper Spray Use
However, state witnesses during the hearing defended the prison guards' use of pepper spray, the Sacramento Bee reports.
Ernest Wagner -- a physician who treats inmates with mental illnesses, including the one in the video -- said the prisoner in the video "would have died" if he had not been taken from his cell and medicated.
Wagner also said that he has not heard of pepper spray causing any lasting harm to individuals.
John Christopher Lindgren -- a senior psychiatrist and supervisor at CDCR's headquarters -- agreed with Wagner, saying that the "use of force incidents do not exacerbate mental health conditions."
Lindgren added that prisoners with mental illnesses often have "a higher threshold for pain" and will not remember such incidents (Walsh/Stanton, Sacramento Bee, 10/22).
Reaction From Prisoners' Attorney
Michael Bien, an attorney representing inmates, praised the policy change but said the new rules still allow guards to use other types of force on prisoners with mental illness (Los Angeles Times, 10/23).
"It's a big step, and I think that it's a significant admission that the department needed to reform," Bien said.
However, he added that CDCR is "kind of fine-tuning how they use pepper spray" rather than determining whether it is "the type of weapon they ought to be using" (AP-U-T San Diego, 10/23).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.