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California prisons haven't improved mental healthcare enough, court says

The federal judge's finding is a blow to Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to end court oversight of the state prison system. Prisoners' lawyers say they will seek further sanctions against the state.

April 05, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Friday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's claim that California has improved its mental healthcare for inmates enough to end 17 years of court oversight, a victory for prisoners' lawyers who say they will use it to seek further sanctions against the state.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton's 68-page decision is a blow to Brown's larger ambition to halt court control of California's entire prison medical program and to remove court limits on the prison population. Courts have cited overcrowding as the main reason the state has failed to provide basic medical and mental healthcare.

Brown has vowed to take his case for restoring state control to the same U.S. Supreme Court that less than two years ago said California prison conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

A spokeswoman for Brown's corrections department called Friday's ruling "unfortunate," saying it failed to give appropriate weight to the state's paid experts, who said adequate improvements had been made in housing and treating mentally ill prisoners.

Karlton tossed out that core evidence, saying it was based on "tainted" reports crafted in secret. He accused California's lawyers of unprofessional conduct by allowing the state's paid experts to question inmates about the care they were receiving without telling their lawyers. The questions were intended to bolster the state's legal case, Karlton wrote.

"There was nothing unethical" about the state's assessment, corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a prepared statement. "We will appeal this decision and are confident that we will prevail."

Karlton found that "ongoing constitutional violations remain," including failure to act on suicide-prevention methods recommended by the court's special master and one of the state's own experts. What gains California has made in reducing waiting lists for seriously ill inmates to receive psychiatric care "are new, and work remains," he said.

The judge found climbing suicide rates, shortages of mental health crisis beds and mental health workers, in addition to inadequate treatment space, despite years of planning, amounting to what he termed "deliberate indifference."

Court records show that Brown's surprise Jan. 7 motion to end federal oversight had been in the works since at least late 2011. The motion triggered a 90-day deadline for a ruling, leaving inmate lawyers roughly 10 weeks to hire experts, tour prisons and build their opposing case and giving Karlton a matter of days to weigh thousands of pages of contradictory depositions.

Lawyers representing more than 32,000 mentally ill inmates said the governor's failed effort may backfire on him. They said it reopened access to prisons and shed light on new problems.

Those include a mental ward where most of the psychiatrists have quit, the use of cages to hold inmates for therapy sessions and the isolation of mentally ill inmates in punitive segregation cells.

"We will be moving for additional relief to fix problems we weren't focused on," said Michael Bien, lead lawyer for inmates in the 23-year-old class-action lawsuit that triggered federal oversight.

The state's experts contended that, after touring 13 of California's 33 prisons, they found that conditions, while imperfect, met the minimum adequate care required under the U.S. Constitution and were continuing to improve.

Documents filed in the case provided a glimpse of the Brown administration's thinking — that it was saddled with a judge who "hated" the state and with battles it couldn't win against a court-appointed special master over 120 detailed aspects of care. In addition, Sacramento was paying $7 million a year to fund that scrutiny.

The court papers include a five-page December 2011 strategy memo written by Jeffrey Beard, the retired chief of Pennsylvania prisons hired as a consultant to the Brown administration. In the memo, Beard told state lawyers he believed California was close to making the case that the state met the standard for six basic areas of care.

A year later, Brown named Beard as his new corrections chief.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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