State prison officials plan to open special solitary confinement units for the mentally ill as part of an effort to comply with court orders to improve their care.
The cellblocks — while still isolating prisoners from the rest of the population and largely from one another — will increase the time those inmates are allowed outside their cells and the amount of treatment they receive.
In an undated memo to wardens filed in court Friday, state prisons director Michael Stainer described an intent to "offer a robust mental health program" within what he called "alternative segregated housing."
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton immediately accepted the plan, submitted as part of a long-running class-action lawsuit, commending both the state and inmate lawyers for the "substantial effort."
State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard issued a statement describing the new units, along with new court-ordered policies curtailing the use of pepper spray on mentally ill prisoners, as "lasting cultural changes" in California's sprawling prison system.
Beard said the state would work with prisoners' lawyers and prison overseers appointed by judges "to improve mental healthcare for inmates and to ensure that there is strong collaboration" between the corrections staff and those providing psychiatric care.
Beard's statement is in sharp contrast to California's stance last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown declared that Karlton was attempting to "gold plate" the care of mentally ill prisoners. State lawyers fiercely opposed motions to change the treatment of those inmates.
Attorneys for mentally ill prisoners praised the new isolation units, to be operated at 16 prisons under the dual command of prisons security staff and mental health administrators, as "a substantial improvement."
"It is what they can do now, and make work," said Michael Bien, a San Francisco lawyer.
Opponents to the use of solitary confinement said it continues what they characterize as an unlawful and dangerous form of punishment.
"It is clearly a step in the right direction … but we're not there yet," said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney for inmates pressing a separate lawsuit over the use of prolonged isolation.
"This is still solitary," Lobel said. "Instead of 23 hours a day in their cell, they are there 21, 22 hours a day. Do they get to exercise in small groups? Or are they still 'recreating' by themselves?"
Corrections officials objected.
"There's nothing solitary about this," said department spokeswoman Dana Simas, noting that inmates in the special units will have group therapy each week and more interaction with clinicians.
However, when outside their cells — up to 20 hours a week for men and 15 for women — the inmates will remain apart from others. Currently, segregated inmates are allowed 10 hours a week outside their cells.
At some prisons, the inmates will be allowed out in individual but adjacent cages. Exercise equipment in some of the units is described as a pullup bar or a ball.
Inmates are put into isolation cells as a result of prison crimes, rule violations or gang activity. Such confinement has come under increasing scrutiny in the United States. Colorado recently banned solitary for the severely mentally ill.
California already has 389 inmates in special psychiatric segregation units created for the most severely mentally ill. Simas said there are 732 inmates with other forms of mental illness in long-term Security Housing Units who could be affected by the new policy. Many more are in temporary segregation units.
As part of the new plan, the state will screen all of those inmates to determine whether any can be safely returned to general housing.