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California Court Finds “Horrific” Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

California Court Finds “Horrific” Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

by David Reutter

A California federal district court found “an existing constitutional violation with respect to use of force on seriously mentally ill inmates” in a long-running class-action lawsuit. After viewing six videos of what officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) described as acceptable use of force “tactics,” the court stopped the viewing and called the videos “horrific.”

The April 10, 2014 ruling came after the CDCR moved to terminate court oversight in the Coleman v. Brown class-action suit – a companion case to Plata v. Brown, which resulted in a landmark three-judge federal court order to significantly reduce the state’s prison population. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

The prisoner class countered with motions to enforce prior court orders in the litigation and for affirmative relief. As PLN has previously reported, the district court found in 1995 that seriously mentally ill prisoners were being treated with punitive measures, placed in segregation without evaluation of their mental health condition and subjected to force without penological justification. [See: PLN, May 1996, p.20].

CDCR officials face a monumental task, for as of September 2013 there were over 33,200 mentally ill prisoners in state prisons who are classified for various levels of care. The court stated it had previously found an Eighth Amendment violation with respect to use of force by prison staff “against seriously mentally ill prisoners without regard to (1) whether their behavior was caused by mental illness and (2) the substantial and known psychiatric harm and risks thereof caused by such applications of force.”

The district court noted the CDCR had made “overall significant progress” in modifying its use of force policies. Yet the video evidence of use of force incidents involving mentally ill prisoners indicated more reform was needed. Attorneys representing the class members planned to show 17 videos, but the court had seen enough after just six were played.

“The avoidable and preventable death of a mentally ill inmate, with a tracheotomy which restricted his breathing, housed in a licensed mental health unit, after being pepper-sprayed for the ‘offense’ of not releasing his [cell door] food port, was one important incident in the evidence” considered by the court, said class attorney Michael Bien, with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.

The district court noted that CDCR policies allowed guards to immediately use force for a “food/security port exception,” even absent an imminent threat.

The evidence showed that force was used against mentally ill prisoners by CDCR staff “at a rate greatly disproportionate to their presence in the overall inmate population.” At twelve facilities, use of force incidents against mentally ill prisoners were double that of force used against other prisoners. In several prisons, “87 to 94% of the use of force incidents were against mentally ill prisoners.”

The court “specifically noted that the defendants had, since the conclusion of trial, changed their pepper-spray policy to stop the use of pepper spray on an emergency basis based solely on an open food port,” Bien said.

It was also determined that prisoners placed in administrative segregation units were at greater risk of committing suicide, “particularly those with a serious mental illness, a risk defendants have acknowledged,” the court wrote. “[P]lacement of seriously mentally ill inmates in California’s segregated housing units can and does cause serious psychological harm, including decompensation, exacerbation of mental illness, inducement of psychosis, and increased risk of suicide.”

Having found on-going constitutional violations, the district court ordered CDCR officials to make changes to their use of force policies. Specifically, the CDCR was ordered to present “a plan to limit or eliminate altogether placement of class members removed from the general population for non-disciplinary reasons in administrative segregation units that house inmates for disciplinary reasons.”

The court also prohibited any class member from being placed in a special housing unit without the prisoner’s treating clinician certifying that the behavior leading to such placement was not a product of his or her mental illness, that the prisoner can safely be placed in segregation, and that his or her mental health condition will not be exacerbated. See: Coleman v. Brown, 28 F.Supp.3d 1068 (E.D. Cal. 2014).

On February 3, 2015, the district court entered an order concerning an expert report submitted by Lindsay M. Hayes, who “conducted a comprehensive audit of suicide prevention practices in each of the thirty-four prisons operated by the [CDCR].” The defendants were ordered to adopt the recommendations in Hayes’ report related to developing strategies and implementing changes to improve suicide prevention in California prisons. See:Coleman v. Brown, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12737 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 3, 2015).

Further, in a May 2015 order regarding mental health staffing levels at CDCR facilities, the district court noted that the “defendants continue to struggle with the task of hiring sufficient mental health staff, particularly psychiatrists.” The court expressed concerns about staffing vacancies as well as increased reliance by prison officials on telemedicine, which it said was “troubling, particularly because there may be class members not susceptible to this method of care.” Accordingly, the court ordered “ongoing focused monitoring by the Special Master of staffing issues” for mental health personnel. The case remains pending. See: Coleman v. Brown, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65419 (E.D. Cal. May 15, 2015).

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