SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal court judge has decided that videos showing California prison guards dousing mentally ill prisoners with pepper spray can be shown in open court, an attorney representing inmates said Wednesday.
Attorney Michael Bien told The Associated Press that U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton announced his decision during a telephone conference call with attorneys representing inmates and the state.
He said it was important to show the use-of-force videos in public so that the state’s claims about improvements it has made in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners can be assessed fairly. It also will give an opportunity for experts on both sides to explain what is happening during the filming, which was done by state prison guards.
“While they are very powerful, (the videos) should also be explained about why this is improper and dangerous and harming the mentally ill,” Bien said.
Court declarations by expert witnesses who viewed the videos said they show prison guards tossing chemical grenades and pumping pepper spray into the cells of screaming mentally ill inmates, using pepper spray on asthmatic inmates and, in one case, blasting one mentally ill inmate with pepper spray five times within the span of a few minutes because he refused to leave his cell. That inmate was left “completely delirious,” according to one expert’s account filed with the court.
Bien, whose law firm is based in San Francisco, said each side will be allowed to play four hours of video during a trial that will begin next Tuesday in federal court in Sacramento. The trial originally had been scheduled to begin Thursday.
The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown had sought to keep the videos out of public view. If they were to be shown at all, the administration wanted the judge to watch them privately in his chambers.
Corrections department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the state did not want to comment on the matter because the court had not issued a decision publicly. But he said that if the videos are shown in open court, the state would want them to run in their entirety to provide the proper context.
The videos and the upcoming trial are part of a federal court case originally filed in 1991 that centers on the state’s treatment of mentally ill inmates, similar to another case focusing on prison medical care.
In both cases, federal judges have ordered massive upgrades in staffing and treatment. Earlier this year, the Brown administration argued that the improvements have succeeded to the point that the state should be allowed to retake control of its prison mental health system from a court-appointed overseer.
The judge rejected that request months later, finding ongoing violations. In the subsequent attempt to determine whether the state had sufficiently improved its level of care, attorneys for the inmates discovered a range of fresh problems, including the pepper spray videos.
They filed a new lawsuit to correct the latest violations, which they say include access to inpatient care for inmates on Death Row, the use of force against mentally ill inmates and treatment for prisoners in isolation units.
The trial to ultimately determine whether the state is adequately caring for its mentally ill inmates will start with opening statements on Tuesday.
Bien, who is pushing the case on behalf of 30,000 state prison inmates with mental illness, said he was hoping the governor’s claim earlier in the year would have turned out to be accurate.
“I was rooting for the governor. If he was right, that was good,” Bien said. “Unfortunately, whatever information he was relying on was tremendously unreliable.”