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Mentally ill California inmates ask judge to change policies

Lawyers representing 33,000 prison inmates want the changes to curb excessive use of force. Corrections officials say the state meets mental health care standards.

May 30, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times

When a mentally ill inmate at Corcoran state prison stripped himself naked, yelled that he was the "creator" and threatened to kill himself, guards responded by dousing him with 44 rounds of pepper spray, including four grenades of the caustic chemical.

The December 2011 incident was one of several that prompted the state's own expert to recommend major policy changes to curb excessive use of force. Now, lawyers representing about 33,000 mentally ill inmates are asking a federal judge to force the state to adopt those and other measures.

The motions come only months after Gov. Jerry Brown launched an unsuccessful bid to end court oversight of prison mental health care. A federal judge rejected Brown's request, but during the legal battle, lawyers representing inmates obtained new access to California's 33 prisons. They are now using information about conditions there to seek new orders against the state, including a limit on housing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.

The filings are part of a long-running, federal class-action lawsuit against California. The 23-year-old case, along with another over medical care, has led to court-ordered population caps, federal receivership, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the state, and multiple threats to hold California's governors in contempt.

California corrections officials contend that prison conditions, including the quality of mental health care, now meet constitutional standards. On Thursday, department spokesman Jeffrey Callison cited court declarations filed by the state's expert, who, Callison said, "found no excessive or unnecessary use of force." He called California's policies "among the best."

But in a deposition taken earlier this year and sealed until parts of it were filed in court Wednesday, that expert, Steve Martin, said no other state uses weapons against inmates to the extent that California does, nor routinely equips its corrections officers with large canisters of pepper spray developed by the military for crowd control.

In his February deposition and in notes he made to himself, Martin expressed misgivings that guards were using the large canisters in small, enclosed cells against unarmed inmates. He said he voiced concerns "about the lack of guidance of when to deploy this weaponry" and the risk of harm that that so much caustic spray at close range could cause inmates.

In multiple meetings with state corrections officials, Martin said, he raised those concerns and gave his own recommendations, including the need to examine cases of apparent excessive force that he said were not investigated.

If a device is being used in a way some might consider inappropriate, Martin said he told state officials: "You better doggone well have some safeguards."

Shortly after, according to state records, a California prison administrator circulated a memo statewide to "clarify expectations" on the use of pepper spray. The Sept. 12, 2012, memo notes that prison policies do not restrict the amount or number of times an inmate may be sprayed, but guards should allow "sufficient time" between applications. No specific length of time is given.

Callison said Thursday that corrections officials could not say if any other of Martin's recommendations had been put in place. Those recommendations included stopping the routine practice of arming prison guards with large canisters of pepper spray intended for crowd control and investigating apparent abuses even when an inmate does not die or is not seriously injured. 

In a videotaped incident reviewed by experts, another Corcoran inmate who refused his medication was pepper-sprayed three times within four minutes. He screamed, cried for help and circled his cell blindly until guards cuffed one hand to a door, when he was sprayed again at close range.

Data provided by the state corrections department show force is used on mentally ill inmates two to three times more often than on other prisoners. At four facilities, mentally ill inmates were the subject of nine of 10 "use of force" reports. The incidents were often triggered by minor infractions, such as refusal to return a food tray.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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