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Lawyers claim physical abuse of mentally ill inmates

May 30, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Inmates await group therapy at Mule Creek State Prison.
Inmates await group therapy at Mule Creek State Prison. (Image filed in U.S. District…)

Prison lawyers have asked a federal judge to sanction California for excessive physical punishment, from overuse of pepper spray to isolation in barren cells, against mentally ill inmates.

In hundreds of pages of documents filed with the U.S. District Court late Wednesday night, the lawyers say California prison officials refuse to recognize behavioral problems, allowing even minor issues to escalate. As a result, they contend, a hallucinating inmate who ignores orders to push his food tray through a door slot can be assaulted with repeated rounds of massive amounts of pepper spray and then locked down in a holding cage.

There was no immediate response from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"The culture in California prisons today is one of force and violence, dominated by punitive means of control, at the expense of all other methods of operation," lawyers suing the state on behalf of some 33,000 mentally ill inmates allege. They contend California has made no progress since 1994, when a federal magistrate first upheld original complaints of excessive force against mentally ill inmates, substituting tasers and 37-mm guns for "crowd control-sized [pepper] spray canisters, expandable batons, and chemical grenades."

The lawyers cited multiple cases of alleged abuse, including one in which a naked inmate housed in isolation cell, "yelling that he was the creator and threatening to kill himself" was pepper sprayed 44 times, including the use of four chemical grenades typically used for crowd control. Other inmates with asthma, and considered a medical risk for pepper spray, were sprayed.

The filing includes reports that such force is used against mentally ill inmates two to three times more often than other inmates. Mentally ill inmates are the subject of nine out of 10 "use of force" reports in four prisons, even though they make up only a third to half of the population.

“I am left with the overwhelming conclusion that they just don’t get it," Eldon Vail, the former prisons director for the state of Washington, is quoted in a court declaration. "CDCR runs an insular system that has sold themselves a delusion that inmates in California are somehow different and more difficult than those in other states. They are not different; they are just treated that way and the results are predictable.”

Wednesday night's motion follows California's request in January for a federal judge to end court oversight of prison mental healthcare. Judge Lawrence Karlton rejected the motion, contending prison conditions continue to violate inmates' constitutional rights. The state is appealing that ruling.

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