October 2, 2013

Lawsuit alleges brutal treatment of mentally ill inmates in California prisons

On the second day of a hearing in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, experts hired by the inmates’ attorneys described what they said are widespread shortcomings inside California prisons.

One therapy session for mentally ill inmates took place with each of them shackled at the arms and ankles, standing inside metal cages the size of phone booths.

Another consisted of showing the prisoners movies that had nothing to do with mental health treatment, including one that focused on reggae music.

A third was scheduled to offer treatment to nine inmates; none showed up.

These were examples of prisoner conditions cited Wednesday as part of a landmark effort by legal advocates to force the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to revise its policies regarding treatment of thousands of mentally ill inmates.

On the second day of a hearing on the issue in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, experts hired by the inmates’ attorneys described what they said are widespread shortcomings inside California prisons: understaffed psychiatric units; blasts of pepper spray directed at inmates for sometimes minor violations; and a reliance on tactics that one expert described as “quite brutal” and “inhuman.”

The attorneys also played a video Wednesday of a prisoner, dubbed “inmate E,” being forcibly extracted from his cell at San Quentin. After he refused orders to come out, guards shot pepper spray through the food port. Again he balked, and they tossed a pepper spray grenade inside that enveloped the cell in a cloud.

The inmate remained seated on his bunk, and a second and then a third grenade came flying into the cell. That was followed by another blast of pepper spray from a canister. When the inmate crawled across the floor to clean himself off in the toilet, he was sprayed again. Finally, a team of guards rushed in, handcuffed him and led him away.

“The amount of spray pumped into that cell was enormous and excessive,” said former Washington state prisons chief Eldon Vail, continuing his second day of testimony on behalf of the inmates.

Much of the testimony Wednesday focused on two videos played in court Tuesday that showed guards using pepper spray and force to extract two mentally ill inmates from their cells; once extracted, they were chained down naked in corridors, their screams and futile protestations bouncing off the wood-paneled walls of the courtroom. They were identified in court only as “inmate A” and “inmate B.”

“I’ve been around awhile and I can tolerate seeing a lot of force,” said Dr. Edward Kaufman, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the inmates. “But I actually felt a bit sick when I saw the videos of inmates A and B.”

Attorneys representing the inmates in the class-action lawsuit contend California prisons are focused on keeping inmates under tight control rather than helping treat those suffering from mental illness.

The state flatly rejects the accusation, saying California has invested more than $1 billion in improving mental health care and now has a system in place that is second to no other prison system. Lawyers for Gov. Jerry Brown said in court filings that the videos of inmates being forcibly removed are taken out of context. One of the state’s experts is expected to testify that there is no systemic problem with mental health care in the prisons.

Kaufman conceded under questioning by Debbie Vorous, an attorney for the state, that there is no way to judge how many times prison staff succeeded in dealing with problem inmates without using force because there are no videos of such incidents.

The hearing, which takes a hiatus until Oct. 16, is the latest effort by inmate legal advocates to force changes in the state prison system through the federal courts.

On Wednesday, Kaufman and Vail contended in their testimony that California relies too heavily on the use of pepper spray, batons, and other equipment that may protect staffers but also terrorize mentally ill inmates. Some inmates are so far removed from reality they believe the guards are trying to get them out of their cells to torture them, Kaufman said, and the use of protective gear such as helmets, gas masks and jumpsuits exacerbates the situation.

“It adds to the delusion aspects of being attacked, almost by foreign figures,” Kaufman testified.

He described the case of inmate A, who was in a mental health crisis bed at California State Prison, Corcoran, last year when he was diagnosed as suicidal. The inmate refused to take his medication and had been smearing feces on his body when a psychologist entered the cell and made a brief attempt to persuade him to take the medication.

“It was less than 30 seconds, and no matter how good a clinician you are, you’re not going to have a successful intervention in less than 30 seconds,” Kaufman testified.

Once the psychologist ended his effort, a team of guards in riot gear advised the prisoner he would be forcibly extracted from his cell if he didn’t comply. He was hit with pepper spray and eventually pulled from his cell and strapped naked to a gurney, then injected with medication.

Kaufman said his evaluation was that the inmate had no idea what the guards were instructing him to do and that “with each burst of (pepper spray) it appears he becomes more confused, more frightened and more childlike.”

Kaufman addressed another instance in which a prisoner was chained naked in front of other inmates after a cell extraction.

“It’s dehumanizing, you feel like an animal,” Kaufman said. “You’re chained to a steel bar and they walk you around in front of everyone. It’s what they do to horses and cattle.”

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos