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Federal judge orders improved conditions for mentally ill death row inmates

A federal judge in Sacramento ordered state prison officials Tuesday to continue working to improve treatment for seriously mentally ill inmates on San Quentin’s death row, but did not give inmates’ attorneys sweeping changes in the care of their clients.

In a 28-page order, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton told state prison officials to work with the court-appointed special master overseeing mental health care in “an assessment of unmet need for inpatient care in the condemned inmate population at San Quentin.”

Karlton also ordered prison officials to consider creating a hospital unit for condemned inmates, at either San Quentin, the California Medical Facility in Vacaville or the newly opened prison hospital in Stockton, but he did not order them to do so.

The judge found that the state still is not meeting Eighth Amendment requirements for adequate treatment of seriously mentally ill inmates. He noted that some improvements have been made, but that there is no simple answer to the problem.

“The solution is not, however, clear from the record before the court,” Karlton wrote.

Michael Bien, lead attorney for the inmates, said late Tuesday, “The most important thing is the judge found there remains a constitutional violation, and the state has to do a better job.”

The judge added that Tuesday’s order further demonstrates that he was right in denying an earlier motion by the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown to terminate the long-running class action on behalf of mentally ill inmates.

Bien also said that Tuesday’s order bolsters the prisoners’ opposition to the state’s pending appeal of Karlton’s refusal to terminate the lawsuit.

The order stems from a motion filed by attorneys for the inmates last April seeking improvements in mental health care, as well as changes in how the use of force is deployed against mentally ill inmates.

Karlton has yet to issue an order on the use-of-force issue.

State corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the state is committed to providing adequate mental health care to its inmates and will continue working to do so.

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