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Judge Assails Mental Health Care in Prisons : Court: Appointment of 'special master' is ordered to oversee psychiatric reforms. State claims system has improved.

September 15, 1995|JOHN HURST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge has rebuked Gov. Pete Wilson and state correctional officials for their "recalcitrant refusal" to provide proper treatment for thousands of mentally ill inmates in the state prison system.

In a stinging decision handed down Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Judge Emeritus Lawrence K. Karlton also upheld a federal magistrate's finding that the officials were guilty of "deliberate indifference" to the plight of mentally ill prisoners who had filed suit.

State correctional officials responded that mental health programs have improved since the suit was filed in 1990, that inmates are getting equal or better mental health care than people outside the walls, and that Karlton's ruling was based on outdated information.

The decision came in the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed on behalf of convicts in California. The judge ordered the appointment of a "special master" to oversee psychiatric care reforms in the prison system and to work with experts to develop improved programs.

Federal magistrate judge John Moulds found in favor of the inmates last year in Sacramento federal court. He also strongly rebuked state officials for poor psychiatric care in the prisons and sent Judge Karlton a raft of recommendations to improve mental health programs.

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Inmates are represented in the suit by the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit prisoners' rights firm, and three private law firms in San Francisco that have been working without fees.

The attorneys have presented evidence that prisoners are not properly screened for psychiatric problems when entering the prison system and do not receive proper medication, that medical records are poorly kept, that mentally ill prisoners are frequently locked in solitary confinement rather than treated, and that electric stun guns and other weapons are used on the mentally ill as punishments.

Karlton's decision, for the most part, upheld Moulds' findings. Karlton too castigated the governor and prison officials.

"The history of defendants' response to this issue demonstrated a recalcitrant refusal to address the serious issues . . . until forced to do so under pressure of this litigation," Karlton wrote. "Defendants have been confronted repeatedly with plain evidence of real suffering caused by systemic deficiencies of a constitutional magnitude."

Karlton specifically took Wilson to task for claims made by state attorneys that the governor was unaware of the quality of psychiatric care in the prisons.

"Given his official responsibilities," wrote Karlton, "the suggestion by his lawyers of the governor's ignorance concerning information he was duty-bound to be familiar with seems remarkable. . . .

"Moreover," he continued, "after five years of litigating, the claimed lack of awareness is not plausible."

Wilson's office referred reporters' questions to J.P. Tremblay, assistant secretary of the state Youth and Correctional Agency, who said the governor does not now claim ignorance of prison mental health programs.

"His Administration is aware of treatment for psychiatric inmates," Tremblay said. "He has authorized budget expenditures. He authorized a [psychiatric] screening program.

"Inmates in prison," he continued, "receive as good if not better psychiatric treatment than the average law-abiding person in California."

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Tremblay said state officials will decide within the next few days whether to appeal Karlton's decision or go back to his court in an effort to persuade the judge that progress has been made since the suit was filed.

But attorneys for the prisoners maintain that mental health treatment in the state penitentiaries remains so poor that disordered inmates get worse and that public safety will suffer when they are eventually released.

"A lot of mentally ill people in California are winding up in the prison system," said Warren E. George, an attorney for a private firm that helped represent the inmates. "We have found that these prisoners are getting worse in prison. If the state is concerned [with public safety], they should see that these people are getting adequate treatment."

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