SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Thursday called California's use of large amounts of pepper spray on mentally ill prisoners a "horrific violation" of their constitutional rights and ordered restrictions on the use of the chemical agent.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton's order requires California to continue revising disciplinary actions used on mentally ill inmates in state prisons, including solitary confinement. The judge found that isolating such prisoners "can and does cause serious psychological harm" and must be limited.
State corrections officials had no immediate comment on the 74-page ruling.
Michael Bien, the lead lawyer representing prisoners in the class-action case, heralded the ruling as a "clear win." Just as important, however, Bien said, are the changes taking place within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
FOR THE RECORD:
Prisons ruling: In the April 11 LATExtra section, an article about a federal court ruling regarding the use of pepper spray against mentally ill prisoners quoted U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton as calling the practice a "horrific violation." Karlton, in his ruling, called a series of videos showing prison guards dousing inmates with pepper spray "horrific" and said that they illustrated a violation of the inmates' constitutional rights. —
State corrections officials have amended the pepper spray policy three times, instructing guards to limit the quantity and duration of spray and to increase the time between blasts. Karlton called those controls "a critical step forward," though still inadequate.
Unless more is done, mentally ill inmates "will remain subject to the use of force by custody staff armed with [capsicum] pepper spray and expandable batons 'without regard to the impact of those weapons on their psychiatric condition,'" the judge wrote.
The federal court decision affects more than a fourth of the state's prison population. More than 33,000 inmates receive some level of psychiatric care.
Karlton wrote the original 1995 federal court decision in the long-running case. That decision found mentally ill prisoners in California were subjected to cruel punishment — which at the time referred to the use of batons and guns that fired wood blocks.
Thursday's court order is an unintended consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts last year to end federal oversight of prison psychiatric services. The Brown administration lost that case, and even though the decision is still under appeal, lawyers for inmates immediately filed motions seeking new limits on solitary confinement, pepper spray and batons.
Karlton said in Thursday's order that six graphic videotapes aired during evidentiary hearings last fall show serious constitutional violations remain.
The tapes, shown in open court and made available after the The Times won a federal appeals court ruling to make them public, depict seriously mentally ill prisoners screaming as they are subdued by officers armed with multiple canisters of pepper spray.
"Most of the videos were horrific," the judge stated in his order. He expressed concern that, as troubling as the amounts of spray used were, the incidents did not violate prison policies in effect at the time.
Karlton credited California for improving its discipline policies, including the new restrictions on the use of pepper spray. The state also has prohibited officers from pepper-spraying inmates simply because they refuse to move away from slots in their cell doors used to deliver food trays.
Karlton's order faulted the state for not giving prison medical personnel the authority to overrule officers' decisions to use the chemical agent, or to put a mentally ill inmate into isolation.
"That is pretty significant," said Stewart Katz, a civil litigation lawyer representing the family of a Los Angeles man who died shortly after being pepper-sprayed in prison last September.
Joseph Duran had just been sent to Mule Creek State Prison and was on suicide watch. He was pepper-sprayed by guards after refusing to remove his hands from the food port in his cell door. The inmate relied on a breathing tube, which he removed after being sprayed, and he died of asphyxiation some eight hours later in what prison officials ruled was an accident. Corrections officials contend there was no connection between Duran's death and the pepper spray.
During the federal court hearings, lawyers representing inmates showed mentally ill prisoners were many times more likely to have force used against them by guards. In some prisons, they accounted for more than 90% of the incidents.
The judge also ruled that placing inmates in solitary "can and does cause serious psychological harm" and that the practice must be limited.
Karlton's order bars the state from returning inmates to solitary confinement if, after their initial segregation, their psychiatric conditions require higher levels of care. And he rejected a new state policy that attempts to create a category of segregation that is not punishment, because it still subjects mentally ill prisoners to strip searches, reduced privileges and isolation.
The judge ordered that mentally ill prisoners cannot be held in disciplinary isolation units longer than 72 hours if they are not being punished. The state currently uses those cells to house mentally ill prisoners for weeks at a time while waiting for space to open up in treatment wards.
California lawmakers are also considering legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement in the state.