Court views inmate pain videos


Video footage of naked, screaming inmates being drenched with pepper spray was aired in federal court Tuesday as evidence in a lawsuit to force California to improve its treatment of mentally ill state prisoners.

For nearly an hour Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton’s Sacramento courtroom was filled with panicked screams from videos showing prisoners in pain, begging for help and pleading for the spraying to stop, while guards shouted over and over, “Cuff up!”

In one case, the inmate had been playing with his feces and refused to take medication. In another, guards were attempting to move the prisoner to a mental health “crisis” bed.


“They are extremely upsetting, but the thing that is so striking is that in each case, the force is being used for the inmates’ ‘own good,’” said Michael Bornstein, a member of the legal team representing mentally ill inmates.

The legal action asks the federal judge to order new restrictions on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including a prohibition on using pepper spray on the mentally ill.

Experts for the state have filed their own reports contending that California has “heightened system-wide safeguards” to prevent abuse of mentally ill inmates.

“When CDCR staff is required to use force, tactics are employed in a good faith effort to control, neutralize or immobilize inmates who are actively engaged in threats of harm to each other, staff or the good order of the facility,” prison expert Steve Martin said in a sworn statement filed in the case.

The hearings over treatment of mentally ill prisoners come after Gov. Jerry Brown in January declared that California’s prison crisis was “over” and that federal oversight of psychiatric care within those lockups should end.

In preparing for that court battle, prisoners attorneys became aware of video footage of mentally ill prisoners being forcibly subdued. California requires all planned uses of force against prisoners to be videotaped.


Two of 17 tapes obtained by lawyers representing some 33,000 mentally ill inmates in California’s prison system were shown in federal court Tuesday. Bornstein said he would show more footage Wednesday.

Lawyers for the state objected to having the videos shown in a court hearing open to the public. The state’s attorneys contended that, taken out of context, the tapes are misleading.

“Plaintiffs have focused purely on the force being used and not the events that lead up to the force being used,” argued Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Patrick McKinney.

Before Tuesday’s hearing began, Karlton ordered the news media not to publish the names of any inmates or guards shown in the videos. In court Tuesday, he expanded that order to include names of inmates or guards disclosed in court from any source, not just the videos.

A lawyer for the Los Angeles Times objected, arguing that the court should not be able to stop the newspaper from publishing information presented publicly.

Karlton rejected the argument. The Times said it would challenge the order before a federal appeals court.