By Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh
Following weeks of graphic court testimony and chilling videos of inmates writhing in pain as they were blasted with pepper spray, a federal judge has found that the use of force against mentally ill inmates in California prisons is unconstitutionally harsh.
Citing the “horrific” videos he viewed during hearings last fall and a wealth of other evidence, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton on Thursday ordered state officials to continue revising the use-of-force procedures deployed against the state’s 33,000 mentally ill prisoners and to limit the use of solitary confinement as a means of disciplining such inmates.
The 74-page order cites the “overall significant progress” that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made in modifying its use-of-force policies, especially new limits on how and when pepper spray can be used against mentally ill inmates.
But, with such inmates constituting more than 28 percent of the roughly 120,000 prisoners in state facilities, Karlton said further improvement is needed. The judge said he found unacceptable the treatment reflected in six videos played in open court of inmates screaming in agony as guards pepper-sprayed them for infractions such as refusing to come out of their cells.
“Most of the videos were horrific,” wrote Karlton, who was visibly anguished as he watched them from the bench during court hearings last fall.
Attorneys for the inmates had filed motions last year contending the state’s use of force against inmates with mental health problems was excessive and cruel. The lead attorney for the inmates, Michael Bien, said Thursday that the evidence presented during the hearings forced the state to begin changing its policies midway through the proceedings.
“It is a solid, well-thought-out order that should go far in remedying the problems exposed during the hearings,” Bien said. “Even while they were still going on, the state started to make changes that it had before refused to consider. It is our hope that, rather than fighting this order, the state will work with us in implementing it.”
Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said officials were reviewing Karlton’s order Thursday night and would have no immediate comment.
The videos presented during the hearings were filmed by prison staffers, as required by department policy when guards prepare to use force against an inmate. The inmate attorneys had planned to show 17 of the videos before Karlton said he had seen enough and ordered a stop after six were played.
Those six showed teams of guards in protective clothing using pepper spray and physical force to extract inmates from their cells after they refused to obey orders. In some cases, the prisoners were forcibly removed because they had refused to take medication. One showed a canister the size of a fire extinguisher being emptied into a cell before the wailing inmate was wrestled out.
As the hearings continued, however, the state revised its position and conceded by late October that some changes in protocol were needed. Michael Stainer, director of CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions, testified that the videos could be described as “at best, controlled chaos.”
Stainer’s concession came after the videos had been played before hushed and sometimes tearful spectators in court. It also followed the Sept. 6 death of Joseph Duran, a mentally ill inmate who breathed through a tube in his throat and died after being pepper-sprayed for refusing to let go of the food port in his cell door, according to an internal review of his death carried out by corrections officials.
Duran’s death was not initially part of the court proceeding before Karlton. Inmate attorneys contend that is because they did not learn about the circumstances of his death until The Sacramento Bee contacted them about the incident.
Staff interviews contained in the internal corrections report, obtained by The Bee, revealed Duran yanked out his breathing tube after being doused with pepper spray inside his cell. According to the report, guards refused to remove Duran and decontaminate him despite orders from prison medical staff. He was found dead in his cell at Ione’s Mule Creek State Prison seven hours later. Even Duran’s parents did not know he had died until they were contacted by The Bee, which published a story on the death in January.
Judge Karlton subsequently reopened the hearing to receive evidence about Duran’s case. The incident is now under investigation by CDCR officials.
The state has since revised its policies so that guards no longer may use force simply because an inmate refuses to relinquish control of a food port, and Bien said he believed Duran’s death played a large role in Karlton’s order Thursday.
“The avoidable and preventable death of a mentally ill inmate, with a tracheotomy which restricted his breathing, housed in a licensed mental health unit, after being pepper-sprayed for the ‘offense’ of not releasing his food port, was one important incident in the evidence considered by Judge Karlton leading to today’s ruling,” Bien said.
“He specifically noted that defendants had, since the conclusion of the trial, changed their pepper-spray policy to stop the use of pepper spray on an emergency basis based solely on an open food port. He also found that custody must not be permitted to override a medical decision that a prisoner is at risk or needs medical care.”
Duran’s father, Steven Duran, said in a recent email that he was grateful the policy had been changed. “Joey’s death was not in vain,” he wrote. He and Duran’s mother, Elaine, have filed a wrongful-death claim against the state over their son’s death.
The state also has revised the manner in which pepper spray can be deployed, ordering that after an application of spray staffers must wait at least three minutes before applying another blast. The videos showed guards spraying inmates repeatedly and using massive pepper-spray grenades to force them from their cells.
Karlton found that, even with the revisions, more must be done, and ordered prison officials to return to him in 60 days with additional changes to the use of force policies. He also ordered that within 30 days a plan be filed “to limit or eliminate altogether” the practice of placing mentally ill inmates in administrative segregation units if they pose problems that stem from their illness rather than willful infractions.
“You can’t use force, harsh confinement and disciplinary measures without dealing with the fact our clients are seriously mentally ill,” Bien said. “The state still does not do that.”