Nearly two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown essentially declared war on the federal judges overseeing California’s adult prisons, declaring that the state didn’t need outsiders and their “nit-picky” edicts on how the corrections system must be operated.
“We can run our own prisons, and, by God, let those judges give us our prisons back,” he declared in a defiant news conference. “We’ll run them right.”
Brown lost the fight in October 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state’s arguments for getting out from under judicial oversight, which had begun nearly three decades earlier because of questions over the constitutionality of health care being provided to inmates.
Today, three federal judges in Northern California still call the shots on how inmate health care is handled and how many inmates the state can pack into its prisons.
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But a remarkable series of court decisions and compromises between the Brown administration and lawyers for the inmates during the past year have led to what the two sides agree is the most progress in many years in cooperation to change inmate care inside the nation’s largest corrections system.
“From the beginning of 2014 to now, what we’re seeing is we went from total war with the (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) ... to where there’s been a lot of cooperation and progress,” said Michael Bien, the lead attorney for prisoners in a 25-year fight to change conditions and treatment for mentally ill inmates, who now number 30,000.
In the past year, the state has cut its inmate population dramatically, and is ahead of schedule to meet the judges’ orders that it reduce the number of prisoners to 137.5 percent of design capacity in the state’s 34 adult prisons.
The judges required a population cut to 141.5 percent of design capacity by Feb. 28, 2015, and the latest figures show the state already has reached 140 percent, or 115,604 inmates. In all likelihood, it will meet the final target – about 113,720 inmates – well in advance of the Feb. 28, 2016, deadline.
Prison officials and inmate lawyers have reached accords on limiting the use of force employed against mentally ill inmates, offering more treatment for prisoners and new training for guards to curb the use of pepper spray to control inmates.
A Sacramento federal judge is expected to approve an agreement between prison officials and inmate lawyers that will give mentally ill inmates improved access to treatment and facilities required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Officials already have signed off on agreements to get thousands of mentally ill inmates out of solitary confinement and provide specially designed living units for them.
Jeffrey Beard, secretary of CDCR, maintains that the prison system has been providing proper levels of medical and mental health care for inmates, despite court findings as recently as this year that the care is below constitutional standards. But he agrees that the past year has seen great strides in resolving legal issues, especially in reducing the overall inmate population.
“I think we have made a lot of good progress over the past year,” Beard said.
In addition to providing more accommodations for mentally ill inmates, the prison system has put in place new protocols meant to reduce suicides. Beard noted that the number of inmate suicides has fallen – there were 30 in 2013, and 23 reported so far this year. He attributes the decline to new policies, including a requirement that guards check on inmates in segregation units twice every hour rather than once an hour.
“The one big thing that we did is we installed what’s called a Guard One system in all of our segregation units, and this is a system where the officer has a (tool), like a pipe, that they walk around and they hit a thing on each door,” Beard said. “And so it actually ensures that somebody is making regular rounds in the housing unit.”
Beard noted that by year’s end he will have visited each adult prison in the state in 2014, and based on those visits, said he believes things are on the right track, particularly with the efforts to find ways to control mentally ill inmates without resorting to undue force. Under new protocols, guards and medical staff are supposed to consult each other on how best to deal with an inmate refusing to take medication or come out of his cell.
“I talk to the executive team when I’m there, I walk around the institutions, and I mention the new use-of-force policy and say, ‘You know, I know this is a challenge,’ and I don’t get any real pushback or any problems,” he said.
“I get the sense that they like the fact that they’re getting more direction, that there are limits on things now, and they know where they can go.”
That view is not unanimous.
Chuck Alexander, executive vice president for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the training “sounds great and it looks great on paper.”
But, he added, “the fact is the training is abysmal.”
Alexander, who takes over as president of the 30,000-plus member union in January, said correctional officers remain confused about basic policies on how and when they can use certain types of force to subdue inmates who are creating dangerous situations.
The change in use-of-force policy stems in large part from a series of court hearings in Sacramento in 2013 that focused on the use of pepper spray against mentally ill inmates. In the course of the hearings, inmate advocates showed six videos of inmates crying out in pain and terror as they were blasted with canisters of pepper spray after refusing to come out of their cells.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who was presiding over the proceedings, called the videos “horrific” and declared the use of force against mentally inmates in California prisons was unconstitutionally harsh. He ordered the state to continue revising its use-of-force procedures and to limit the use of solitary confinement in disciplining inmates with mental illness.
“I think that was a significant moment,” said Bien, who successfully fought to have the videos introduced as evidence and played in open court. “Their position was that nothing needed to be changed, there is nothing wrong. And once the videos came out – and anyone who saw those videos knew there was something tremendously wrong – they immediately announced they would be reforming their use-of-force policies.”
The department contends it already was moving toward changing how it applies force, and in fact had made some changes before the hearings commenced.
The use of pepper spray against an inmate is the subject of a pending lawsuit over the death of Joseph Duran, a mentally ill prisoner who died in September 2013 at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione after being blasted in the face with the chemical.
Duran, who breathed through a tube in his throat, was drenched in pepper spray after refusing to close the food port in his cell door. He removed his breathing tube after the dousing, and was left alone inside his cell despite medical staffers asking that they be allowed to remove him, clear his throat and clean the pepper spray residue off his body.
In addition to a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Duran’s parents, internal Corrections Department documents show that officials launched investigations into the death. Beard said this month that the internal probes have been completed and that “actions, as are appropriate, have been taken.”
He would not discuss those actions or say whether any of the guards involved had been disciplined.
Overcrowding in the prisons also has been the topic of prolonged litigation, and despite the progress made, that promises to continue. Even after the state meets the court-ordered mandate, the prisons will be filled beyond design capacity.
“There’s no doubt that the overcrowding litigation has been very successful in safely reducing the prison population,” said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office and lead counsel in a number of prisoner class actions. “But the prisons are still substantially above the constitutional level, and this fact continues to make it difficult ... to provide necessary care and other essential services.”
Still, Specter said, the ability to reach agreements with state officials has improved since the governor announced two years ago that “the job is now complete.”
“Contacts with the Governor’s Office and CDCR have become much more professional and productive,” Specter said. “Secretary Beard is very accessible.”
Also controversial has been the state’s policy of sending inmates to out-of-state facilities to relieve overcrowding. Currently, nearly 9,000 prisoners are housed outside California. Beard said that, for now, out-of-state placement is “a necessary evil.”
Officials hope that the passage of Proposition 47 last month will help free up more prison beds. The measure reclassifies a number of crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and allows prisoners convicted of such crimes to seek resentencing. Beard said 5,300 inmates are eligible for resentencing under the measure.
“I think we’ll know a lot better as we get further into 2015, where things are going with some of these initiatives,” Beard said. “I think we’ll have a much better feeling for when we can begin that process of bringing down the out-of-staters.”
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.