Crime & Justice

California mentally ill inmates get special units

File photo of general population cells at Corcoran State Prison.
File photo of general population cells at Corcoran State Prison.
Grant Slater/KPCC

State corrections officials agreed Friday to shift mentally ill inmates into separate specialized housing that offer them more treatment instead of placing them in the same isolation units used for other inmates, a decision that marks a major shift in how the system deals with such prisoners.

The agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento comes after a federal judge ruled in April that California's treatment of mentally ill inmates violates constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton acted after the release of videotapes made by correctional officers that showed guards pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.

Under the agreement, the state will create separate short- and long-term housing units for about 2,500 mentally ill inmates who prison officials say must be kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons. The agreement calls for them to get more treatment and more time out of their prison cells.

"These new policies emphasize treatment while in segregation, increased focus on the lengths of stay in segregation, and a thorough review of an inmate's risk of decompensation from being housed in segregation upon release from inpatient care," the department said in its filing.

"[The Corrections Department] continues to make lasting cultural changes to how the Department responds to and treats mentally ill inmates," Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement sent to KPCC. "We worked closely with inmates’ attorneys and with the court-appointed Special Master on this newest set of policies. We will 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."

Michael Bien, whose firm sued the state over its treatment of mentally ill inmates, called the state's decision "a gigantic change" and "a tremendous step forward" in removing mentally ill inmates from the state's notorious security housing units and administration segregation units. Experts have said the harsh conditions and sensory deprivation of the isolation units can worsen psychiatric conditions.

This story has been updated.