California Revises Policy on Mentally Ill Inmates
California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has introduced new policies for the use of force against mentally ill prisoners that are among the most detailed in the nation.The changes, which were introduced on Friday, were set in motion after videos showed corrections officers in state prisons dousing severely mentally ill inmates with pepper spray and forcibly removing them from their cells. The videos drew public outrage and were called “horrific” by a federal judge who ordered the footage made public last year.
The department said the revised policies, filed in Federal District Court on Friday in response to an order issued by Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in April, represented “a systemwide culture change” in how correctional staff members deal with mentally ill prisoners. The corrections department worked to revise the policies with a special master appointed by the court and consulted on the revisions with lawyers for the plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit over the state’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners that led to the judge’s order.
The increasing number of mentally ill prisoners in prisons and jails across the country — in 2013, mentally ill prisoners made up just over 28 percent of California’s prison population — has raised questions about their treatment in corrections systems poorly equipped to deal with psychiatric symptoms. Mentally ill inmates, whose challenging behavior often leads to their placement in solitary confinement, are frequent targets for a cell extraction — the forcible removal of an inmate from a cell by a tactical team equipped with Tasers, pepper spray or other less-lethal weapons — or for other uses of force by guards.
Judge Karlton, in his April order, ruled that the use of force and lengthy solitary confinement of seriously mentally ill inmates was unconstitutional and ordered the department to revise its policies.
California’s new policy requires that before there can be any use of force, a mental health practitioner must conduct an evaluation of the “totality of circumstances involved,” including the inmate’s medical and mental status and ability to understand and comply with orders. A “cool-down period,” during which a mental health professional attempts to de-escalate the situation, is also required.