Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Prison boss touts new Vacaville mental health facility as reason to end federal oversight

Doctors at California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, Calif., see inmates in a modern medical clinic.
Doctors at California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, Calif., see inmates in a modern medical clinic.
Julie Small/KPCC

California's new prisons chief says the new inmate mental health facility in Vacaville is reason to end nearly two decades of federal oversight of psychiatric care at the state’s correctional system.

Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard made his comments during a media tour of the $24 million California Medical Facility that can povide intensive outpatient mental health therapy for 600 inmates.

“I’ve been around this system and visited over 20 institutions," he said. "I can assure you there is not a deliberate indifference to the needs (of inmates).”

“People are being identified, people are being properly placed, and people are given the level of care that they need,” said Beard.

Poor care led to federal court action

In 1995, a federal judge agreed with inmates in a class action lawsuit that California's correctional system failed to provide adequate medical care to prisoners, including those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other severe mental illnesses.

The judge appointed a special master to guide improvements in medical care, including mental halth care, at the state's 33 prisons.

In 2009, a three-judge court found that overcrowded conditions thwarted efforts to improve care and ordered the state to reduce the inmate population. Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has spent more than $1.3 billion to expand clinical care space for inmates. 

In 2011, California enacted a "realignment" program that diverted tens of thousands of low-level felons from state prisons into county custody. The program has reduced overcrowding and nagging backlogs for treatment.

Attorney claims little improvement in mental health care

Michael Bien, an attorney for inmates with mental illnesses, says realignment hasn't solved the problem of inadequate care.

Bien said CDCR continues to house mentally ill inmates in isolation cells called Administrative Segregation Units because "they don’t have enough beds available in regular units—they use them as way stations—as holding stations.”  

Administrative Segregation units are intended to isolate inmates who have attacked staff or committed other serious crimes while in prison.

Bien said the practice of housing the mentally ill in those units has contributed to a higher than average suicide rate.  

Since 2006, the special master who monitors mental health care in prisons has found that roughly a third of inmates who commit suicide in California prisons do so in administrative segregation.

The state continues to defy federal court orders to improve suicide prevention and mental health treatment in the prisons, said Bien.

CDCR chief: Federal oversight "slowing down progress"

Beard said those court orders hamstring CDCR's efforts to provide good care to inmates. 

“I see the continuation of the oversight and monitoring as actually slowing down progress to move forward,”  he said.

In January, attorneys for the state filed motions to vacate the prison population cap and to end the prison mental health care case.

The three-judge court has put off a decision about the population cap.

But U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton, who oversees the prison mental health case, set a March 27 hearing on the motion to end federal oversight.