Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Attorneys seek limited isolation for mentally ill inmates

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This year Gov. Jerry Brown asked a judge to dismiss a decades-old lawsuit that established federal oversight of mental health care in California prisons. But U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton rejected the motion, and the governor’s move blew the case wide open.

In one of the related issues, attorneys for inmates are now seeking to limit the amount of time prison officials can keep mentally ill inmates in isolation units.

California prison officials use Security Housing Units and what's called "administrative segregation" to keep tight control of hard-core inmates, including those whom they identify as prison gang leaders or accomplices.

But more than 3,000 of the men and women who are isolated also suffer from mental disorders.

An attorney for some of those inmates, Michael Bien, said at a Wednesday court hearing in Sacramento that the isolation exacerbates their conditions and may contribute to the high suicide rate in California’s prisons.

“Leaving human beings in isolated, harsh environments without stimulation, without activities, without programming, very limited treatment, very limited exercise, is bad for them," Bien said. "And it’s worse for people with mental illness.”

Dana Simas of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the mentally troubled inmates in isolation units suffer from milder conditions — such as behavioral problems — that require less treatment. 

She said an inmate with a severe disorder would be sent to facilities run by the Department of State Hospitals, or to a mental health crisis unit at one of the prisons.

As for the “harsh” environment, she says isolation units at the state’s other lockups look nothing like those at Pelican Bay State Prison — which no longer houses mentally ill inmates.

“They’re not the windowless-perforated cell doors with no sunlight," Simas said. "These are normal housing units that are used even for our general population inmates.”

Simas said inmates in isolation units see a mental health clinician daily and meet with their primary clinician once a week. Those who need it get 10 hours of mental health treatment a week.

Bien said that treatment sounds far better than what is received by inmates he represents. He said many inmates refuse therapy sessions because they often take place in cages and in full view of other inmates.

“They also get full body searched on their way in and out,” Bien said.  “So for all these reasons, when mentally ill people are in these units, they get sicker.”

Bien hopes to convince the federal judge overseeing prison mental health that such inmates belong in less restrictive environments.

The judge scheduled a hearing on the matter for the first week in November.

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