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State altering policy on use of force against mentally ill prisoners

October 23, 2013|By Paige St. John

Facing legal action over the use of force to subdue mentally ill prisoners, the California corrections department is working on new rules to curb some of the agency's practices currently under review in federal court.

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, introduced as evidence in the case, showing half a dozen inmates who were repeatedly sprayed with large amounts of pepper spray -- even while naked and screaming for help.

Those tapes, he said, "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 on a prisoner, including banning the use of pepper spray canisters -- designed for crowd control -- on prisoners in small cells.

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

Lawyers for inmates filed legal action asking U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento to require psychiatric hospitalization for the most mentally ill prisoners on death row and to ban the use of pepper spray as a means of controlling mentally infirm inmates. The federal court hearing on request continued this week.

The announcement of new rules coincides with a ruling Wednesday by Karlton requiring the state to produce public copies of videotapes depicting six mentally ill prisoners being subjected to pepper spray after refusing to be handcuffed for removal from their cells.

Those tapes already have been played in federal court. The tapes show guards repeatedly drenching the prisoners, sometimes at close range, with large amounts of the burning spray. 

Karlton previously ordered the tapes to be sealed and attempted to block The Times from using identifying information about prisoners or correctional officers seen or heard in the videos. An appeals court overturned that order.

Witnesses for the state have contended that the methods used in the incidents caught on tape were appropriate and necessary. In several of the cases, prison officials wanted to inject the inmates, suffering psychotic episodes, with medication. However, Stainer on Wednesday said that some of force was improper.

"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."


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