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California: Mentally Ill Prisoners to Get Special Housing, More Treatment

In the latest installment of a 24-year battle over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in the California prison system, the state agreed in August 2014 to begin removing those prisoners from isolation units and transition them into special housing that will allow them more time out of their cells, more treatment, and more diversions.

This decision comes after an agreement was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento as part of a 24-year-old lawsuit originally filed to reduce overcrowding. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton approved the plan less than three hours after it was filed in his court.

Michael Bien, one of the attorneys for the prisoners, called the state's decision "a gigantic change" and a "tremendous step forward" because they finally have agreed to remove mentally ill prisoners from the state's notorious security housing units (SHU). Experts agree that the harsh conditions of those units contribute to the worsening of psychiatric conditions.

Under the new agreement, the state will create separate short- and long-term housing units for the 2,500 or so mentally ill prisoners who prison officials say must be kept in segregation for disciplinary reasons. The new units will separate the mentally ill from the conditions endured by prisoners who are in SHUs for committing new crimes, being assaultive, or are involved in gang activities.

It was reported that Judge Karlton was prompted to act as quickly as he did due to the release of a video made by prison guards that showed guards pumping large amounts of pepper spray in to the cells of mentally ill prisoners, some "screaming and delirious."

"There appears to be recognition after the trial and the judge's ruling that segregation is a dangerous place and it should be used as little as possible and for as short a time as possible for the mentally ill," Bien said.

Among the changes mentally ill prisoners will see are more individual and group therapy, more exercise and interaction with other prisoners, and in-cell radios and televisions.

The state said it will review each case one-by-one and develop a plan to transfer any eligible prisoner back to general population. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Bears vowed in a statement "to make lasting cultural changes" in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

The isolation units at Pelican Bay and other state prisons have been the subject of widespread criticism and attention in recent years over living conditions and the length of time many prisoners spend in isolation.


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