Judge to decide treatment of mentally ill inmates

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Attorneys for the state and those representing prison inmates presented starkly different views Thursday of prison guards’ use of pepper spray against the mentally ill as they completed closing arguments in a federal use-of-force trial.

At issue is whether the heavy use of pepper spray by state prison guards against some mentally ill inmates violates prisoners’ civil rights.

The state’s own expert witness testified that guards use pepper spray far too often and in quantities that are too great. He also said previous recommendations for changes were rejected or ignored.

“Treat them as people. Treat them as mentally ill people who need help,” said Jeffrey L. Bornstein, one of the attorneys representing inmates’ welfare.

He said prison guards were not properly trained to remove mentally ill inmates who refuse to leave their cells, leaving them to resort to pepper spray and batons.

“They torture mentally ill people by the way they do those cell extractions,” he argued. “It’s inhumane the way they treat people who are mentally ill.”

The trial in federal court in Sacramento featured the airing of a half-dozen videos that showed pepper spray used multiple times on screaming inmates who refused to leave their cells. Last month, corrections officials said they will change their rules to limit how much pepper spray can be used.

Patrick McKinney, a supervising deputy attorney general who represents the state in the case, said there is no evidence of a system-wide problem. In fact, he said, the use of pepper spray to remove mentally ill inmates from their cells is relatively rare — 122 times over a recent 10-month period.

Rarer still are uses that could be interpreted as abuse of incompetent inmates, he said. The videos presented in court fail to show employees’ attempts, sometimes lasting hours, to talk inmates out of their cells before they use force as a last resort. Batons are used only in life-threatening situations.

“There has been no evidence that staff used force against the mentally ill for the purposes of inflicting pain or punishment. The opposite is true: Force is used to make sure they’re receiving their necessary medication … and ultimately receiving proper care,” McKinney told U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, who has presided over the underlying class-action lawsuit for more than two decades.

The dispute is the latest chapter in a 23-year-old lawsuit that has helped prompt sweeping changes in the state’s prison system, including a sharp reduction in inmate overcrowding. Federal judges, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that reducing the prison population is necessary to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.

Yet one witness for inmates, Dr. Edward Kaufman, testified that little has changed in the 20 years since Karlton first ruled that guards were using excessive force against mentally ill prisoners who refused to comply with their orders.

Kaufman first toured California prisons in 1992 and 1993 as an expert witness in the same lawsuit. Then, guards used stun guns and launchers that fired wooden or rubber blocks. Now they have batons and pepper spray.

Karlton said he is torn on several issues in the case. Even if there were individual abuses, he questioned if there is enough evidence of a system-wide “pattern and practice,” the standard needed to prove a constitutional violation. And even if he finds a constitutional violation, Karlton questioned how far he could go to order reforms.

The excessive force complaint resurfaced after Karlton rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to end court oversight of inmate mental health programs in April.

Separately, the judge is considering whether mentally ill inmates on death row are given proper treatment.

The hearing over excessive force centered on the videos, which were recorded by correctional officers as part of their official duties. The death row debate was punctuated by the story of a condemned inmate who punched out his own eyes with a pair of ball point pens. The psychotic inmate tried to kill himself three times at San Quentin State Prison but was never hospitalized. He finally hanged himself in April.

The judge and lawyers representing inmates and the state agreed that there have been significant improvements in caring for condemned inmates in recent years. The question is whether they have gone far enough or whether a licensed psychiatric hospital unit is needed at San Quentin.

Karlton’s written rulings on the alleged excessive use of force and the treatment of condemned inmates are expected in coming weeks.

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