By Julie Small
In response to a court order, California prison officials proposed a new approach Friday to how they treat mentally ill inmates who break rules or commit new crimes. The judge who ordered the change immediately approved the plan.
Right now, if a mentally ill inmate refuses to follow orders or attacks another inmate or guards, the prison sends him to a segregation unit. In segregation, prisoners spend more time confined to their cells and must submit to routine strip searches for weapons and drugs. Advocates for inmates have long insisted the conditions only worsen mental illness. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton unequivocally backed them up.
In an April ruling, the judge wrote, “placement of seriously mentally ill inmates in California’s segregation housing unit can and does cause serious psychological harm” by worsening symptoms, inducing psychosis and increasing suicidal urges.
In a statement, Dana Simas, spokesperson with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that CDCR was continuing to make “lasting cultural changes to how the Department responds to and treats mentally ill inmates.” Simas also said that CDCR would “continue to work with all parties to improve mental health care for inmates and to ensure that there is strong collaboration between custody and mental health staff.”
In the response sent to Judge Karlton, CDCR said it would no longer send mentally ill inmates to segregation units.
Instead, they’ll create new housing designed for them that offers twice as much out-of-cell time and more psychiatric care. Corrections staff on those units will take “a collaborative approach” with mental health staff “to ensure the well-being of the inmates housed in these new units,” they wrote.
“This is a big, big change,” said Michael Bien, an attorney for inmates who asked the judge to intervene. Bien said the state’s plan steers these prisoners away from the harshest conditions of punishment and into treatment that could help.
“They’ll be in one of the new units,” Bien said, “where they’ll get much more treatment, much more out-of-cell time, and hopefully experience less stress.”
More than 3,000 inmates in segregation have been diagnosed with serious mental disorders.
Corrections will conduct a case-by-case review of those prisoners — starting with those who have the longest segregation terms — to decide whether to keep them in the new units or release them back into the general prison population, if they are stable.
Friday’s plan is the final piece of a massive overhaul of California’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Corrections official have also agreed to new restrictions on pepper-spraying and strip-searching the inmates, and to more training and oversight of prison staff who interact with them.