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Federal judge weighs claims of brutality against mentally ill prisoners

October 01, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • A federal judge will begin hearings Tuesday on a prisoners' civil rights case alleging abuse of mentally ill inmates at state prisons, including Corcoran, pictured.
A federal judge will begin hearings Tuesday on a prisoners' civil… (Eric Paul Zamora / Fresno…)

SACRAMENTO -- Federal hearings begin Tuesday in Sacramento over allegations that mentally ill inmates in California prisons are subject to brutal and degrading treatment, including excessive dousing with pepper spray and neglect on death row.

State prison officials say that force is required at times to subdue inmates who pose threats to other inmates or staff.

Experts for lawyers who represent some 33,000 inmates have filed sworn declarations accusing the state of allowing corrections officers to determine the treatment of mentally ill, wielding batons and pepper spray against those suffering psychiatric breakdowns, and then following up with rules violations that strip those prisoners of family visits and time out of their cells.

In addition, they allege California neglects treatment of condemned prisoners, contributing to a death row suicide rate 17 times higher than the national average for state prisoners.

Among those scheduled to testify is a former director of the state prison system, Jeanne Woodford, who also served as the warden at San Quentin. Lawyers for the state sought to prevent her from testifying, contending she lacks training in mental health care.

Experts for the state have filed their own reports contending California has a "heightened system wide safeguards" to prevent abuse of mentally ill inmates. "When CDCR staff is required to use force, tactics are employed in a good faith effort to control, neutralize or immobilize inmates who are actively engaged in threats of harm to each other, staff, or the good order of the facility," said prison expert Steve Martin in a sworn statement filed in the case.

The most sensitive testimony is bound to come from 17 videotapes that prisoners' lawyers convinced U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to allow to be shown in court. The six hours of tapes depict prison force teams using pepper spray, batons, shields and ramming devices to overpower or force compliance of mentally ill inmates within four prisons.

Karlton has ordered those who view the tapes be prevented from disclosing any identifying information of people in the videos that they see or hear. The Los Angeles Times late Monday filed papers opposing the order, arguing, in part, that the order censors reporting on the operations of government and protects "the identity of public law enforcement officials who are alleged to have engaged in misconduct."

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On Twitter: @paigestjohn

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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