Judge calls use of pepper spray on mentally ill inmates ‘horrific’

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SACRAMENTO -- A federal judge Thursday called California’s use of large amounts of pepper spray to subdue mentally ill prisoners a “horrific” violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton’s order requires California to continue revising policies that govern how mentally ill inmates in the state’s prisons are disciplined, including the use of solitary confinement. He found that such isoaltion of mentally ill inmates “can and does cause serious psychological harm” and must be limited.

The judge’s order requires the state to have prior approval from a doctor or clinician before mentally ill prisoners may be put into segregated housing. The order also bars the state from returning inmates to solitary confinement if their psychiatric conditions require higher levels of care.


California corrections officials were still reviewing the lengthy 74-page order Thursday evening and had no immediate comment, said spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman.

Michael Bien, lead attorney for prisoners, said he was heartened not just by the order, but by changes the state has made to its disciplinary programs in the last six months.

“It is certainly a victory,” he said.

Karlton wrote the original 1995 federal court decision finding that mentally ill prisoners in California were subjected to cruel punishment -- at the time, this included the use of batons and guns that fired rubber bullets and wood blocks.

The judge said six videotapes shown in court during hearings last fall demonstrated that the same issues remain, though they now involve pepper spray.

“Most of the videos were horrific,” Karlton wrote in his order. He expressed concern that, as troubling as the amounts of spray used were, the incidents did not violate state prison policies in effect at the time.

California corrections officials have amended their policies on the use of pepper spray three times in the last six months, instructing officers to limit the quantity and duration of pepper spray used and to increase the time between blasts. It was amended again to prohibit guards from pepper spraying inmates merely because they refused to move away from slots in their doors used to deliver food trays.


Karlton called the revisions “a critical step forward” but inadequate. His ruling requires closer monitoring of pepper spray use within prisons by the state and reports to a court-appointed special master.

“Without more ... seriously mentally ill inmates in California’s prisons will remain subject to uses of force by custody staff armed with (capsicum) pepper spray and expandable batons ‘without regard to the impact of those weapons on their psychiatrict condition,’” Karlton wrote.

Lawyers representing inmates in the class action case showed mentally ill prisoners were many times more likely to have force used against them by prison guards, and, in some prisons, accounted for more than 90% of the incidents.

Tapes show inmates forced from cells

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