In a sharp rebuke of Gov. Jerry Brown, a federal judge Friday rejected his administration's bid to end federal court control of mental health care in California's prisons, finding that treatment has not attained a constitutional level and "systemic failures persist," which are leading to inmate suicides and other problems.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, in a 68-page order denying the state's motion to terminate his authority over mental health care through his appointed special master, also was highly critical of the methods attorneys for the state used to compile supporting evidence.
Karlton wrote that the lawyers "violated their professional duty" by allowing their experts to interview mentally ill inmates without the prisoners' attorneys being present or giving their permission.
"In summary, for over a decade a disproportionately high number of inmates have committed suicide in California's prison system," Karlton wrote. "Review of those suicides shows a pattern of identifiable and describable inadequacies in suicide prevention" in the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"Defendants have a constitutional obligation to take and adequately implement all reasonable steps to remedy those inadequacies. The evidence shows they have not yet done so."
Michael Bien, lead counsel for the inmates, saw the order as a clear win for the 33,000 inmates represented in the suit.
"It is obviously a complete victory for us in our effort to keep our clients alive and ensure adequate treatment," he said. "Hopefully this rebuke by Judge Karlton will cause the state to address the constitutional deficiencies in the care of our clients, who are seriously mentally ill and the most vulnerable inmates in the system."
State corrections officials said they do not agree with the order and will appeal based on their view that California prisons are now providing the best mental health care in the nation.
"We will appeal this decision and are confident that we will prevail," department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an emailed statement. "It's time for this costly and intrusive lawsuit now in its twenty-third year to come to an end."
The judge's ruling came nine days after attorneys for the inmates and the state squared off in a contentious hearing before Karlton over whether California had done enough to improve conditions for mentally sick patients inside its prisons.
The Brown administration served notice in January that it believed the time had long since passed for California to regain control of prison health care from federal judges and filed documents outlining improvements that have been made since the class-action lawsuit before Karlton was filed in 1990.
But the inmates' attorneys contend mental health care for their clients still is woefully inadequate and cite suicide rates among inmates as part of the evidence.
Bien said that, even while he and his colleagues were gathering material to fend off the state's motion to terminate oversight, facts emerged that will cause them to seek additional reform in areas such as "understaffing of clinical and custodial personnel, under-resourcing of patient's needs, premature discharge of mentally ill inmates, custodial interference with inpatient care, and suicide response.
"Too many mentally ill inmates are spending too much time in isolated segregated housing, and that leads to unconscionable suicides," Bien said. "Intolerable excessive force by guards against the mentally ill goes without discipline."
Inmates' attorneys also charge the state improperly gained access to their clients by having experts tour 13 prisons and talk to inmates about the quality of their care.
The attorneys describe these sessions as "secret" interviews that violated inmates' rights to have their attorneys present, an accusation lawyers for the state dismiss as absurd.
Karlton sided with the inmates' attorneys, saying the state is plainly wrong in contending that judicial oversight is no longer needed.
"The facts show that the rate of inmate suicide is not declining, and more than 70 percent of inmate suicides in California involve significant inadequacies about which defendants have known for years," Karlton wrote.
The judge, who was appointed to the Sacramento Superior Court in 1976 by Brown during his first stint as governor and later elevated to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter, also rejected the state's contention that its experts' interviews with inmates were proper.
"The inmate interviews were not, despite (the state's) descriptions of them, simply occasional, unintended by-products of the inspections," Karlton wrote. "Rather, at every facility the defense experts visited, they without fail sought out class members inmates with serious mental disorders for their interviews."
The interviews with inmates were conducted to gather evidence for the state to present to the court to show conditions have improved.
But those interviews were done without consent of the inmates' attorneys, the judge said, and the claim to the contrary by lawyers from the attorney general's office who represent the state "is simply culled from thin air."
Karlton wrote that because of those ethical violations he was throwing out the experts' two reports on conditions in the prisons filed with the termination motion and, as a result, there was not enough evidence to grant the motion.
He added, however, that he recognized an appeal court might find such an action "inappropriate," so he said he also considered whether the expert evidence he was throwing out would have made a difference in his decision to deny the motion.
It would not have, he wrote, noting that even with that information "defendants have not borne their burden of proof."
The corrections department disputed the judge's findings, saying their experts did nothing wrong in the way they proceeded.
"It's unfortunate that the judge didn't give the appropriate weight to reports by national experts who found that CDCR is providing constitutional mental health care to inmates and, in fact, is a model for the nation," Hoffman said in her statement. "There was nothing unethical about their evaluations."
The governor already has indicated that he will pursue the matter to the nation's highest court, if necessary.
"I have no doubt that if we can get this back before the Supreme Court, it will agree," Brown told The Bee last month.
The mental health case is one of two legal battles the state is currently waging over judicial oversight. The governor also is seeking to get out from under a federal court decree requiring the state to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of designed capacity by the end of the year, which would require cutting the population by about 9,000 inmates, bringing the total down to about 110,000.
A specially-convened three-judge court, on which Karlton serves, found in 2009 that overcrowded prison conditions were the primary reason for health care so substandard it violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment, and issued the population reduction order. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 rejected a state appeal and affirmed the order.
The state's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates, but the Brown administration contends it already has reduced the inmate population to the point that further cuts will endanger public safety.
A hearing on the state's motion to vacate or modify the population reduction order, also filed in January, will take place before the three-judge court in San Francisco on a date yet to be set.
Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.