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California to limit pepper spray use on mentally ill inmates

California corrections department officials are working on new rules to curb the use of pepper spray after videotapes show its use on mentally ill prisoners.

October 23, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom.
Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento,… (Rich Pedroncelli, AP )

SACRAMENTO — Facing federal scrutiny of the way it uses force to subdue mentally ill prisoners, the California corrections department is working on new rules to curb some of those practices.

In testimony Wednesday before a federal judge, the state official in charge of adult prisons said he sought the changes in part because of videotapes showing half a dozen inmates — some naked and screaming for help — being repeatedly sprayed with large amounts of pepper spray.

Those tapes "are honestly one of the reasons we will be revising our policy to provide additional guidelines," said Michael Stainer, deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Stainer said the new rules would limit the amount of pepper spray guards may use and ban canisters of the substance meant for crowd control in a small cell.

"I would love to have this policy in practice by the end of the year," Stainer told The Times.

He declined to provide a working copy of the new rules.

The announcement coincides with a ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton requiring the state to produce public copies of the videotapes, which show six mentally ill prisoners in four state prisons being pepper sprayed after refusing to be handcuffed for removal from their cells. The tapes have been played in federal court but kept under seal, as lawyers for California prisoners have sought curtailment of pepper spray use on the mentally ill.

In episodes that last as long as half an hour, guards are seen repeatedly pepper spraying the prisoners, sometimes at close range. In some of those cases, it appears the screaming prisoners do not understand repeated orders.

On Wednesday, Karlton questioned how to balance the needs of a system accustomed to punishing prisoners who disobey orders, and "whether any penalty is appropriate when somebody is nuts." He said that any order might be too broad, because 1 in 3 prisoners in California is categorized as mentally ill, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia.

Though experts testifying on behalf of prisoners said the inmates in the videotapes sometimes appeared terrified and in pain, the state's witnesses have argued that the chemical in pepper spray causes no lasting physical or psychological harm, and is preferable to risking injury by entering a prisoner's cell. They contend the tapes depict extreme cases, and even then, the steps taken complied with prison rules.

Dr. John Lindgren, California's senior prison psychiatrist, testified Tuesday that he believed psychotic prisoners would have no memory of the incidents and that they "have a higher than average threshold for pain or noxious stimuli." Another prison psychiatrist called the spray "an irritant."

In 2012, the Office of the Inspector General reported the case of an inmate showing "bizarre behavior" at an undisclosed prison who died after being pepper sprayed during an attempt to remove him from his cell and take him to the emergency room. According to the report, the inmate was exposed to several canisters of spray. He was carried out on a cot, with hands cuffed behind his back and his head covered, and medical treatment was delayed even after no pulse was detected, the report stated. The inspector general noted an autopsy listed pepper spray as the cause of death.

According to court records, there was a second incident in which a naked man claiming he was the "creator" and threatening to strangle himself with a piece of cord received more than 40 blasts of pepper spray. That case prompted an expert working for the prison system to call for changes in policy.

Stainer said he issued a memo in September 2012 directing guards to allow "sufficient time" between uses of pepper spray to let the chemical take effect, and to switch to other tactics if it is evident the spray is not working. After reviewing tapes of 122 incidents involving both mentally ill and general population inmates, Stainer said he decided clearer instructions were needed, including a directive that guards should consider other methods when dealing with the mentally ill.

"Staff out there really aren't using every bit of common sense and every bit of training," he said, "so we're going to tighten down those guidelines quite a bit."

Lawyers representing California's 30,000 mentally ill prisoners said the new policy is an overdue step in the right direction.

But attorney Michael Bien said the new policy still leaves mentally ill prisoners subject to other uses of force, even when in the throes of psychotic episodes that leave them struggling with reality. Over the course of the 23-year-old federal case, the challenges have shifted from subduing mentally ill prisoners with Tasers and guns that fire wood blocks to now pepper spray and batons.

"They don't understand," Bien said. The core issue "is how they are handling the mentally ill."

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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