By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton
Two decades after California prisons stopped using Tasers and rubber pellets to subdue mentally ill inmates in the throes of psychotic episodes, serious problems persist with the amount of force used against these prisoners and the lack of treatment for some, two expert witnesses testified today in federal court.
With attorneys for mentally ill inmates seeking a major revision in prison policies, the witnesses testified about how inmates are subdued for sometimes minor rules violations caused by their sickness, including blasts of pepper spray used without any guidelines about how much or when it can be used.
At times, the decisions by custody staff in prisons directly contradict suggestions from mental health professionals on how best to handle a disturbed inmate, the experts testified before U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton.
Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on two graphic videos played in court Tuesday of forceful cell extractions of mentally ill inmates.
Dr. Edward Kaufman, a forensic psychiatrist brought in by the inmate attorneys to watch the videos, review inmates' medical files, and interview inmates, said corrections officials on one of the videos were using precisely the wrong methods to subdue an inmate at the state prison in Corcoran.
That inmate was refusing to take his medication and had been smearing feces on his body when a psychologist entered the cell and made a very brief attempt at convincing the inmate to take some medicine.
"It was less than 30 seconds, and no matter how good a clinician you are you're not going to have a successful intervention in less than 30 seconds," Kaufman testified.
Immediately after the psychologist ended his interaction with the inmate, a team of guards in riot gear complete with helmets and gas masks read him an advisory that he was about to be forcefully extracted from his cell if he didn't comply. He then was repeatedly blasted with pepper spray and eventually pulled from his cell and strapped naked to a gurney, then forcibly injected with medication.
Kaufman said his evaluation was that the inmate, who had been placed in an acute crisis unit because he was suicidal, had no idea what the guards were instructing him to do and that "with each burst of (pepper spray) it appears he becomes more confused, more frightened and more child-like."
After the inmate was subdued, he was left naked and chained to the gurney, a move Kaufman said causes "extreme humiliation, degradation (and is) inhumane."
State officials insist California's prisons offer state-of-the-art mental health care and that the examples inmate attorneys are using are isolated, taken out of context and are being presented to Karlton in a vacuum.
The hearing, now in its second day, is to decide on a request by the inmates' attorneys for much greater access to meaningful treatment for their clients and more restrictive policies on the use of force against mentally ill prisoners.
Kaufman said his visits to California prisons showed conditions inhibit inmates from seeking treatment or help because they fear being written up for rules violations that will extend their prison stays.
He recounted one incident where an inmate threw his tray through the food port of his cell and struck a guard in the abdomen. The inmate, who Kaufman said is "out of touch with reality," faced a charge of assault on a peace officer and the case was referred to the local district attorney for prosecution.
Another mentally ill inmate was written up for three rules violations that occurred in one day and all were related to his illness, Kaufman said, and faced the loss of 570 days on credit for time served.
Eldon Vail, the former head of the Washington state prison system, also testified for the inmates' attorneys and recounted an incident where a can of tuna fell off a shelf in an inmate's cell and hit a passing guard in the leg.
The inmate was written up for assault and faced the possibility of being isolated in a security housing unit, the modern-day version of the hole, Vail said.
Both witnesses testified that there is a lack of trust among custodial staff, clinicians and inmates, who typically do not seek help because they perceive it as risking harassment by guards and punishment they do not understand.
Kaufman recounted group therapy sessions being held with inmates shackled inside metal cages, as well as other, even less therapeutic examples he discovered.
"The group therapy often consisted of a movie that had nothing to do with mental health, like one about reggae music," he said.
He described a therapy session for nine inmates that had nine no-shows. He said remarks by guards indicated that was not unusual.
The inmate attorneys say they have obtained 17 videos from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and, with Karlton's blessing, will play the remaining 15 in court as they press for widespread changes in how mentally ill inmates are regarded and handled.