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Judge hears claims of neglect in prison psych wards

June 19, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Suicide watch cages at Salinas Valley State Prison. Prisoner rights lawyers are seeking federal court orders to increase staffing and care for mentally ill inmates.
Suicide watch cages at Salinas Valley State Prison. Prisoner rights lawyers… (U.S. District Court )

Inmates are shuffled through a prison psychiatric ward without adequate care or attention, leading to two deaths, including the water-intoxication of a mentally ill man who previously nearly drank himself to death, lawyers for California prisoners told a federal judge Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton heard that testimony as prison lawyers seek new sanctions against California over the treatment of inmates in the state's crowded prisons, an unintended consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown's failed bid earlier this year to end federal court oversight. In separate motions, prisoners' lawyers also sought orders against use of force and tear gas on mentally ill inmates, their housing in solitary confinement, alleged lack of treatment for inmates on death row, and the continued shipment of inmates at high risk of contracting valley fever to prisons infected with the deadly spores.

Lawyers for state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris had attempted to prevent Karlton from hearing testimony Wednesday over the March death of Desmond Watkins, who drank a fatal amount of water while being held in the psychiatric hospital attached to Salinas Valley State Prison. They contend allegations of substandard care are a matter of "difference in clinical opinion" and fail to show "willful blindness" to the needs of inmates.

Three psychiatrists who worked at or inspected Salinas Valley allege critical staffing shortages and repeatedly warned prison administrators the conditions were unsafe. Further, they complain of wait lists in the state system to receive care, premature discharges of seriously ill inmates, and shortages of supplies to inmates such as soap and clean underwear.

The state refutes those allegations but acknowledges the staffing ratio was changed, from one doctor per 25 patients to one per 35. A psychiatrist who toured the prison for prisoners said he heard the staffing ratio was as high as one doctor per 60 patients. "That's not acceptable," testified Dr. Pablo Stewart.

Lawyers for prisoners also allege mentally ill inmates arriving at the ward are held in limbo sometimes for weeks, without adequate treatment, a process the state calls "orientation status" and says is necessary to evaluate them, but that the doctors say puts inmates in jeopardy. One suicidal patient held three weeks awaiting care killed himself late last year. State lawyers admit his transfer into full care was delayed, but contend it had no bearing on his suicide.

Prisoners' lawyers seek increased judicial oversight of the mental health programs at Salinas Valley and Vacaville prisons operated jointly by the state corrections and mental health departments. The mental health department has attempted to hire clinicians to increase staffing at Salinas Valley, even as it prepares to staff a new prison medical facility that will open July 22 in Stockton.

Brown has yet to seek legislative approval of steps to reduce prison crowding to meet court-ordered population caps. He has begun to appeal those orders before the U.S. Supreme Court. His pick for corrections secretary, Jeffrey Beard, was due for a Senate confirmation hearing later Wednesday.

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paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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