California Agrees To Remove Mentally Ill Inmates From Solitary Confinement

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Penny Schoner, of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition, puts the final touches on a replica of a secure housing unit cell at Pelican Bay State Prison, during a demonstration at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., to protest the state's the use of isolation units at California prisons.

Months after a U.S. federal judge ruled that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CCR) excessively punished its mentally ill prisoners, state prison officials announced the roll-out of policies that would move thousands of inmates suffering from psychiatric illnesses from solitary confinement to special isolation units.

Solitary confinement — the exclusion of inmates from human contact for days, months, and even years at a time — often serves as the primary means of punishment for offenders believed to exhibit violent behavior. Prisoners rights advocates have long argued against the practice, saying that it places inmates — especially those suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — at great risk for further psychological damage. Previous studies have shown that extensive stints in solitary confinement often lead to hallucinations, panic attacks, increased paranoia, impulse control, and sensitivity to external stimuli that can induce suicidal thoughts.

The new policy, approved by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, would improve treatment for more than 2,500 mentally ill prisoners, many of whom have spent a considerable amount of time in isolation. Changes include increased recreation, access to mental health experts, and an assessment of conditions that could increase risk of suicide. The plan also allows for more collaboration between mental health staff and prison officials, a move that some say could also curb violence against mentally ill inmates.

During their eight-month investigation, federal officials watched footage of one of those violent episodes. The gruesome video showed CCR guards shoving and slamming a prisoner to the ground and later dousing his eyes with pepper spray. A report later filed in a federal court gave CCR’s mental health services a poor rating, stating that nearly 45 percent of the clinically diagnosed mentally ill patients in the state prison system didn’t receive treatment specific to their individual needs.

The document also described staff shortages and a dismal infrastructure in the two state psychiatric hospitals and four psychiatric hospitals ran within four state prisons. Prisoners featured in the report often complained about not receiving access to therapists with whom they could disclose their inner-most thoughts. Inmates also said doctors doled out medication in place of more suitable treatment. Matthew Lopes, special master of the report, strongly criticized California’s Atascadero State Hospital, a facility he said has a history of discharging patients based on their length of stay, rather than their mental condition.

The controversial video and subsequent report confirmed what prison rights advocates and mental health experts have long tried to argue: prisons haven’t provided suitable care needed for inmates in poor mental health. Stories about guards scalding prisoners with hot water and beating them unconscious during extractions from cells have become increasingly common — especially in the years since the 1980s, when mental health resources shifted from local clinics and prisons, causing an increase in the mentally ill inmate population in U.S. prisons that’s ten times more than that of local psychiatric facilities.

That’s why many prisoner rights groups consider last week’s developments a positive step in meeting the needs of prisoners with mental problems, especially at a time when 11 out of 14 suicides in the California prison system happen within solitary confinement. Many proponents, including Michael Bien, a lead lawyer in the class action suit against CCR, said that the changes represent a shift in thinking around the treatment of the mentally ill in prisons. “We’re confident this is going to be real,” Bien told the New York Times. “I think they have a new philosophy that they believe in and they are going to do it.”