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Court Okay Needed Before Housing Mentally Ill Prisoners in California Supermax

Court Okay Needed Before Housing Mentally Ill Prisoners
in California Supermax

The US District Court (E.D. Calif.) issued an order preventing the CA Dept. of Corrections (CDC) from housing mentally ill prisoners in its psychologically isolating and debilitating new "supermax" administrative segregation cells at Corcoran State Prison, unless CDC first obtained the express permission of the court. The order effectively canceled CDC's planned "experiment" wherein they would put 50 such prisoners in Corcoran's supermax cells and a "control group" of 50 more in "traditional" cells to determine over a six month "evaluation period" whether any suffered "extreme sensory deprivation ... detrimental to [their] mental health."

CDC's spokeswoman, Margot Bach, stated that approximately 20% of CDC's 158,000 prisoners are seriously mentally ill. In a September 13, 1995 ruling (Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F.Supp.1282 (1995)), Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ordered CDC to properly provide identification of and medical treatment for this class of prisoners. Court-appointed monitors have since followed their progress. It was those monitors who complained to now Chief Judge Emeritus Karlton that unless enjoined by the court, CDC would begin its "experiment" by housing mentally ill prisoners at the Corcoran Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in the same type of sensorially deprivating cells that had been found unsuitable for the mentally ill at Pelican Bay State Prison (see Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146, 1264 (N.D. Calif. 1995); PLN, Aug. 1995, p.3 and Oct. 1995, p.20). The proposed SATF housing would have put them in "harsh isolation, with no windows, no work or educational programming, no stimulation such as radio, no ability to communicate with prisoners in adjacent cells and out of cell time limited to exercise in individual cages a few times per week."

The complaint exasperatingly decried CDC's planned "experiment on unconsenting mentally ill class members" as adding "insult to 8th Amendment injury," violating the spirit of the same court's earlier findings in Coleman. The complaint further noted similarities to the "barbaric" mental torture chronicled in Jones `El v. Berge, 164 F.Supp. 1096 (W.D. Wis. 2001) [PLN, April 2002] and Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F.Supp.2d 855, 914 (S.D TX 2001) [PLN, June 1999 and Feb. 2002]. The complaint asked for injunctive relief to prevent irreparable injury.

Steven Green, Assistant Secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency strongly disagreed, stating "this is not a supermax"' and that "calling it an experiment is crap." Spokeswoman Bach stated that the new supermax facility was selected for the experiment because it creates "a quieter, smaller environment where they can't see and imitate other inmates who may be behaving badly. We thought it would be easier for them to function in this environment, with fewer distractions ... We want the best for our inmates, and we think these units are an improvement over the current environment they're in."

Prisoners' co-counsel Steven Fama of the Prison Law Office countered that the proposed facilities would be a place of "e

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Related legal case

Coleman v. Wilson