California Jails & Prisons

Dramatic videos open latest salvo in California prison battle

Claiming that California prisons use force against mentally ill prisoners too often and overzealously, attorneys for inmates opened their latest attack on the system Tuesday in federal court by playing two graphic videos of inmates in their cells being pepper-sprayed, then rushed by a team of guards who forcibly subdued them.

The videos – two of 17 the inmates’ attorneys are ready to play before U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in the coming days – are being used as evidence in a bid to stop California prison officials from using heavy amounts of pepper spray, batons and other force that inmate advocates liken to torture.

In the first video, played to a hushed crowd of lawyers and reporters in Karlton’s 15th-floor courtroom in downtown Sacramento, an inmate in a mental health crisis unit at Corcoran State Prison is shown refusing to take medication from a psychologist visiting him in his cell.

“He refused to take it,” the psychologist tells a waiting team of guards wearing gas masks, helmets, padded vests, gloves, protective jumpsuits and shin guards.

The inmate, locked in his cell, was playing with his feces and threatening to throw two cups of an unknown substance on anyone who entered. Almost immediately after the psychologist emerged, the team began pumping pepper spray through the food port of the metal cell door, repeatedly dousing the inmate between warnings that he better come out.

The team opened the door, dragging the inmate out and wrestling him to the floor as he alternately sobbed and screamed, “Don’t do this to me,” “help,” and “I don’t want to be executed.”

The videos are part of the inmates’ attorneys’ high-stakes bid to change the way mentally ill prisoners are treated in California, and the state fought for months to keep them from being shown in open court.

The hearing that began Tuesday is part of a decades-long court fight involving inmate health care, and the attorneys for the prisoners have won a series of victories in recent months. But they still are not satisfied, and asked Karlton to order the opening of a psychiatric treatment center at the prison medical facility in Vacaville to serve condemned inmates on San Quentin’s death row who currently have little access to acute mental health care.

“Inpatient hospitalization, the highest levels of treatment, are denied to death row inmates,” said Michael Bien, the lead attorney for the inmates.

The attorneys asked for a review of death row to identify inmates who need mental health treatment, as well as sweeping changes in policies at all California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prisons.

“They punish people because of their mental illness,” attorney Jeffrey L. Bornstein told Karlton. “Without your order, they refuse to change it. ... That is wrong, it’s unconstitutional, it’s systemic and it needs to be stopped.”

Lawyers for Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration denied the claims Tuesday, saying the inmates’ attorneys were basing their claims on a handful of incidents.

“There is simply no pattern or practice of systemic use of force against the mentally ill by CDCR,” Patrick McKinney, a lawyer for the state, told Karlton.

The hearing continues today and will focus on how mentally ill inmates – advocates estimate that 30 percent of the state’s 133,000 adult inmates are afflicted with such an illness – are treated inside the state’s 34 adult prisons. Inmate advocates contend that the first response by CDCR to even relatively minor instances of perceived misconduct is the use of force.

The attorneys said the videos, turned over to them by CDCR as part of the lawsuit, show extreme use of force for rule violations, refusal to take medication, acting out and other incidents. Offenders are written up and that can result in hundreds of days of good-behavior credit being revoked, prolonging their incarceration.

“Punishment over treatment is the rule,” Bien charged.

The state has rejected those arguments in court filings, saying its policies are designed to protect inmates and staff. A corrections consultant hired by the state to study use of force in the prisons said he found corrections staff “generally applied force in good-faith efforts to maintain or restore order.”

“Moreover, I found no instances in which force was inflicted maliciously or sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm,” Steve J. Martin, the consultant, said in court filings.

The inmates’ lawyers are seeking revisions in prison policies on the use of pepper spray, batons and other force used in removing mentally ill prisoners from their cells or on other occasions when they refuse to obey orders. The inmates’ attorneys also plan to cite some testimony from Martin, the state’s expert, who conceded under questioning in a July deposition that he was shocked at the number and type of weapons prison staffers have at their disposal to quell disturbances.

On Tuesday, the inmates’ attorneys’ first witness described the amount of armaments he saw on a typical California prison guard’s duty belt as “extraordinary.” Eldon Vail, a corrections consultant and former head of the Washington state prison system, said he had never seen as many weapons in use in other states, and added that during his tour of California prisons, he was surprised by inmates’ fear of leaving their cells.

“One common theme that emerged from inmates was that it was better to just stay in your cell so you wouldn’t get harassed by the staff,” Vail testified.

Vail, who said he frequently walked prison yards alone while he was secretary of the Washington prison system, also indicated he was surprised when the warden at a California prison tried to persuade him to wear an anti-stab vest before walking among inmates. That indicated “there is a great deal of fear” between staff and inmates, Vail said.

The type of weaponry used inside the prisons became the subject of a legal spat prior to Tuesday’s hearing as the inmates’ attorneys demanded in a subpoena that attorneys for the state bring to court a number of weapons, including 37 mm and 40 mm block guns, pepper spray canisters and pepper spray grenades, batons and all types of rifles used in control towers. The state objected and accused them of seeking “to turn the courtroom into an armory.”

Karlton ordered the state to provide either photographs of the items or to bring the weapons to court, and the state indicated it would provide the photos.

The state also fought the inmates’ attorneys’ efforts to introduce the videos, saying use of selected videos “is misleading and confusing.” The judge rejected the state’s efforts to bar the use of the videos or, alternatively, to have him review them in his chambers. Instead, Karlton agreed to allow the videos to be played in open court but ordered that copies not be released to the media.

The inmates’ attorneys said the videos are a major component of their case and will show indiscriminate use of force to subdue or move inmates. They told Karlton they planned to show as many of the 17 videos as he will allow.

As the two videos were played on a large screen in the courtroom, some onlookers in the audience were visibly upset, and Karlton ordered a five-minute break after the conclusion of the first one, which ran 30 minutes.

The second video, which lasted about 20 minutes, showed an inmate at Kern Valley State Prison refusing to come out to be moved to a crisis bed for a mental health evaluation. He eventually relented after repeated doses of pepper spray through the door, including one major blast from a “barricade removal device” with a canister of spray roughly the size of a fire extinguisher.

McKinney told Karlton the videos are misleading because they do not show the hours of efforts by staffers to resolve standoffs with inmates before they are forcibly removed from their cells. He said such incidents might be preceded by hours of “verbal persuasion” and a “cooling off period” before staffers use force to handle a violation of prison rules.

“In each of these cases, the inmate refused a lawful order to come out of his cell,” McKinney said.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.