Six videos of dramatic confrontations between mentally ill prison inmates and California prison guards were filed Thursday in federal court, giving the public its first glimpse of what inmate advocates contend are inhumane uses of force.
The videos have been the subject of legal battles for months as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tried unsuccessfully to block them from being shown in court. Until Thursday, they had been viewed by only a small group of observers, played under tight restrictions in a Sacramento federal courtroom as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit.
But after a legal fight that went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, corrections officials have adhered to an Oct. 22 order by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton that the videos be placed in the public court file and made available for broader distribution.
The videos are considered critical evidence in support of the efforts by inmate attorneys to win court-ordered changes in the handling of mentally ill prisoners in California, particularly when it comes to the use of pepper spray, batons and other types of heightened force.
The attorneys contend the videos offer stark evidence of mentally ill prisoners being subjected to cruel and unnecessary force, and they insist the public should know what techniques are being used behind the walls and fences of the state’s taxpayer-funded prisons.
In an interview Wednesday, Michael Bien, lead counsel for the inmates in the 23-year-old class action lawsuit before Karlton, said he believes “strongly” that the public should be able to view the videos with some redactions to obscure identities. Names of inmates and guards have been shielded, although their faces can be seen.
“As good a job as the attorneys and the witnesses may do in bringing out the facts for the court, that is a poor substitute for actually seeing what they are talking about,” Bien said. “In fact, citizens have a duty to look at these images, as terrible as they are.
“This is happening in taxpayer-financed institutions, the inmates are residents of this state and the officers are public employees. People in California should see for themselves the excessive force used on seriously mentally ill patients and be able to measure the impact it has on their sense of humanity.”
On the videos, prison guards can be seen using heavy amounts of pepper spray and physical force to subdue inmates in mental health units who have disobeyed orders or are refusing to take medication or leave their cells. In some scenes, the inmates scream in pain or confusion, at times appearing fearful about what is being done and why.
Corrections officials maintain that the videos do not tell the entire story.
“Use of force is always a last resort for our staff, and cell extractions are typically done to keep inmates from harming themselves or others and to ensure that they are placed in a more appropriate mental health setting,” corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a statement issued after the videos were lodged in the public file.
“What you don’t see on these videos is the hours of discussions that take place between the inmate and clinical staff before a cell extraction is ordered and the video camera starts rolling.”
Nevertheless, the footage aired in court and similar videos already have had an impact. One top-ranking corrections official testified last month that the attention generated by the videos has helped trigger proposed changes to prison policies.
Michael Stainer, director of CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions, testified Oct. 23 that the incidents depicted could be described as “at best, controlled chaos.” He said he has reviewed 122 videos of custodial staff interacting with mentally ill inmates and that the department is “currently drafting more stringent rules” on the use of force, including pepper spray.
The chemical will be employed “only when it can be effective,” he said. A “maximum amount” and “maximum duration,” as well as “a waiting period between applications” will be mandated. Which options should be exercised in a given situation, and in what order, will also be set out.
The long-running legal battle before Karlton and a companion lawsuit against the state in San Francisco federal court have resulted in significant changes to medical treatment in California’s prisons, and a marked reduction in inmate population. A three-judge court in California ruled that overcrowding is the primary reason for unconstitutional health care in the state’s adult prison system. That ruling has twice been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The inmates’ attorneys urge additional improvements, and in the present hearing before Karlton are arguing for reforms in two areas: the amount of force acceptable against mentally ill inmates; and the access to mental health care that condemned prisoners have at San Quentin State Prison.
“The Constitution does not permit inhumane prisons,” the attorneys argued in one court filing, and experts they have hired testified during the 12 days of the hearing that the amount of weaponry guards carry and the quantities of pepper spray showered upon inmates in cells are far beyond what they have seen in other states.
Corrections officials dispute that, contending the videos do not reflect the extensive efforts made to coax inmates into compliance before prison officials turn on the cameras.
“I found that CDCR personnel generally applied force in good-faith efforts to maintain or restore order,” Steve J. Martin, a Texas-based corrections expert hired by the state, declared in one court filing after reviewing more than 300 use-of-force incidents.
“Moreover, I found no instances in which force was inflicted maliciously or sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.”
Corrections policy requires that video recordings be made when officials use force against an inmate, and in the course of the lawsuit attorneys for the inmates won access to 17 videos filmed during “controlled” use-of-force incidents. Those incidents involved efforts to extract an inmate from a cell after he has refused to come out or otherwise refused an order. They follow a careful script in which officers and medical staffers appear before a camera operator and describe who they are and what function they will perform leading up to and during the extraction.
The inmates’ attorneys contend that the videos show corrections officials too often resort to forceful tactics against prisoners who, because of mental illness, often cannot understand the orders being issued.
The hearing is scheduled to continue through Nov. 5, after which Karlton must decide whether to adopt any or all of the recommendations by inmates’ attorneys. Among them: a ban on the use of pepper spray against mentally ill prisoners in their cells “except where circumstances call for extreme measures to protect staff or inmates”; limits on the size of pepper spray canisters deployed against inmates; and broader access to mental health care for all mentally ill prisoners, including those on death row.