For 22 years, the federal court in Sacramento has pounded the California Department of Corrections with orders and injunctions and slapped it with sanctions to get the state prison system to clean up its mental health treatment mess.
Now, attorneys for mentally ill inmates are trying for another attention getter: punitive damages.
In a trial underway in front of U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, plaintiffs want a jury to find nine corrections department employees liable for malice and oppression to rectify abuses they say their client suffered during a brutal 2012 cell extraction.
Along with general damages, the attorneys say a punitive award would send a message to the prison system and its staff on how to carry out the best practices – and avoid the worst – when inmates have full-blown psychotic breakdowns.
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“Since at least 1995, CDCR officials, medical providers, and custody officers have been on notice that the Constitution requires prisons to provide incarcerated persons with necessary mental health care and to treat prisoners in a humane manner that does not punish them for mental illness,” plaintiffs lawyer Lori Rifkin wrote in her trial brief.
Rifkin said the videotaped 2012 cell extraction of her client, Jermaine Padilla, who was seen being pepper sprayed and dragged out screaming and strapped naked to a gurney for 72 hours, demonstrated that “almost two decades later, CDCR had still failed to correct these constitutional deprivations.”
“As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiff’s ability to recover from mental health crises and actively participate in mental health treatment has been severely damaged,” Rifkin wrote. “Defendants compromised his ability to trust medical help, exacerbated and confirmed his worst fears as well as his paranoia and anxiety about others being out to hurt him, and left him in a state of decompensation for weeks and months such that it caused long-term damage to his brain.”
Padilla’s lawyers say prison doctors waited too long to involuntarily medicate him and that he should have been moved to a state mental hospital long before his eventual transfer.
Corrections lawyers confirmed in their court papers that in the weeks before his cell extraction from the Mental Health Crisis Bed unit at Corcoran State Prison, Padilla had stopped taking his medications. They also acknowledged that on the day of his July 24, 2012, removal, Padilla had flooded his cell with water and had smeared himself with and eaten his own feces. They also admitted that officers blasted Padilla with pepper spray from a 46-ounce container through the food port of his cell and hit him with the contents of three more 12-ounce canisters.
Then, after subduing Padilla, officers tied him down on a gurney for 72 hours, as ordered by his psychiatrist, Dr. Ernest Wagner, state attorneys said.
The prison lawyers disputed, however, whether Padilla was “gravely disabled” throughout his stay in the unit. They also contested whether officers used excessive force and whether Padilla was too impaired psychiatrically to meet conditions Wagner required for him to get out of the restraints.
They also disagreed that prison staff “acted with malice, oppressions, evil intent, or in reckless disregard for Plaintiff’s rights,” the requirements for punitive damages.
“Defendants deny these allegations and contend that Plaintiff received appropriate treatment and supervision while in the Mental Health Crisis Bed unit,” Deputy Attorney General Diana Esquivel wrote in her statement of the case.
Padilla’s lawyers filed the case in 2014, nearly two decades after the late U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in the long-running Coleman v. Brown class-action lawsuit found the state’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners in violation of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Padilla lawsuit came a year after the class-action lawyers obtained videos of six cell extractions, including his, in which psychiatrically impaired prisoners were pepper sprayed in their cells. One of them at Mule Creek State Prison, Joseph Duran, later died, and his family and won a $750,000 settlement.
Karlton, after a series of hearings in 2013, found the prison system’s use of force procedures on mentally ill inmates unconstitutional and ordered that they be changed.
Michael Bien, the lead counsel on the Coleman case, said individual lawsuits like Padilla’s – beyond the class-action rulings that have restricted use of force, reduced solitary confinement and required acute-patient care for mentally ill prisoners – represent another way of achieving those goals.
“Nothing really strikes home like having a jury of your peers look at your conduct and say that you as an individual violated the Constitution, and we’re going to award damages,” Bien said. “It’s easier to go along day by day and say, ‘Well, yeah, we’re violating this order in Coleman, but it’s a systemic problem.
“With the possibility of punitive damages, these kind of cases send a message that there is individual responsibility.”
At the time of his cell extraction, Padilla, 35, was imprisoned on a two-year, eight-month term for a weapons violation, according to CDCR records. He also had a prior conviction for second-degree robbery.
He was transferred to Corcoran in May 2012 and placed in the prison’s Enhanced Outpatient Program for inmates with serious mental disorders. On July 1, his condition further deteriorated and officials moved him into Corcoran’s Mental Health Crisis Bed unit.
Testimony last week featured a pair of psychiatrists who figured prominently in the 2013 hearings.
Dr. Edward Kaufman, an expert witness for Padilla, said that his review of the records showed that the inmate’s progress during his 24 days in the unit was “steadily downhill.”
Kaufman said Padilla “was experiencing a great deal of paranoid fears” and “was incapable of adhering to any commands” the day of the cell extraction. Still, prison staff ordered him to back up to the food port of his cell and to hold his hands there to be handcuffed. When he didn’t respond to their liking, they cut loose with the pepper spray, while the inmate howled in misery.
The doctor was highly critical of Wagner, the prison psychiatrist, for failing to release Padilla from the restraints for such a prolonged period of time after the prisoner had been medicated and calmed down and asked what he had to do to get off the gurney.
“The criteria that he set was that Mr. Padilla had to understand the reasons he was there, and he had to specify what the reasons were,” Kaufman told the jury, adding: “Mr. Padilla had no idea why he was there.
“He provoked him into anger,” Kaufman said of Wagner, “and used the reaction to justify keeping him in restraints.”
Rifkin, the plaintiff’s lawyer, pressed Wagner on why he kept Padilla in restraints for 72 hours. In his notes shown to the jury, Wagner wrote that he wanted to keep Padilla tied to the gurney until he could show “a demonstrated ability to state the reason that he is restrained.”
Wagner said he believed that Padilla was “ignoring” the treatment team.
“That was my judgment, that at that point he was being defiant rather than incapable,” Wagner said.
Rifkin also questioned Wagner on why he kept Padilla in the crisis unit for 45 days when the prison system’s Program Guide calls for 10-day maximum stays before the inmate is to be transported to what is now the Department of State Hospitals.
Wagner in a previous examination in the case said that making the outside referral “required a bunch of paperwork.” Asked about it on cross-examination by Esquivel, the state’s lawyer, Wagner said, “We had the capacity to treat him. I didn’t see a need for it.”
Testimony continues Monday.