State corrections officials are facing a new legal challenge over their use of pepper spray to control mentally ill inmates.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabiliation, and other prison officials over the July 2012 use of pepper spray against inmate Jermaine Padilla.
Padilla, a 33-year-old Ventura County man, was about seven months into a 10-month sentence on a parole violation when he was pepper-sprayed while being housed in a mental health crisis bed unit at Corcoran State Prison, the lawsuit states.
Padilla’s mental condition had been steadily deteriorating at the time, and he told prison staffers he was hearing voices and “Barack Obama was talking to him,” according to the suit, which was filed by Oakland attorney Lori Rifkin.
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Prison staffers decided Padilla needed to be taken out of his cell and forced to take emergency medication, but he refused to voluntarily submit to being handcuffed and removed.
The subsequent cell extraction was recorded on video by prison staffers and eventually ended up as evidence in a federal court hearing last fall along with videos of five other cell extractions involving the use of pepper spray against mentally ill inmates.
The videos and other evidence led to one part of an order by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in April in which he found the use of pepper spray unconstitutionally harsh and cited the videos as “horrific.”
Karlton had released the videos in October, and excerpts of them, including the Padilla video, may be viewed at www.sacbee.com/capitolandcalifornia.
Rifkin, who participated on behalf of inmates in the evidentiary hearing last fall that led to Karlton’s finding, is now seeking damages on behalf of Padilla for what the lawsuit terms as “willful, malicious, intentional, oppressive and despicable conduct.”
Corrections officials had no comment on the lawsuit, but spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an email that “use of force is always a last resort for our staff and is utilized to keep inmates from harming themselves or others.”
The department has noted previously that last fall officials began the process of altering policies for when and how pepper spray may be used against mentally ill inmates.
Padilla, who had been returned to prison on a parole violation for possession of a 4-inch knife blade, was one of the estimated 33,000 mentally ill inmates in California’s adult prison system.
He had a lengthy history of serious mental illness, the lawsuit states, and prison psychiatric personnel made notations that “he expressed paranoia, appeared psychotic, delusional, and illogical ”
When prison staffers decided to remove him from his cell on July 24, 2012, corrections officials followed a protocol that calls for a medical staffer to first try to persuade the inmate to obey orders and leave the cell peacefully.
That effort lasted 32 seconds, according to the lawsuit, and the use of pepper spray to get Padilla to come out was then approved.
“The cell extraction team, consisting of a swat team of at least seven officers wearing black insect-like gas masks, and five of whom were suited up from head-to-toe in white plastic biohazard suits, assembled outside Mr. Padilla’s cell door,” the suit states, adding that they carried fire extinguisher-sized canisters of pepper spray, leg irons, handcuffs, batons and a large metal triangle with a heavy chain attached.
“To Mr. Padilla, who was in mental health crisis, the extraction team appeared to be the manifestation of his nightmares,” the lawsuit states. “They had a gurney with them, and he believed that they were there to seize him and harvest his organs or turn him into a cyborg.”
The lawsuit adds that Padilla could not understand what the prison staffers wanted from him, and they eventually sprayed him with pepper spray for 11 seconds, using the food slot in the cell door.
Padilla screamed in pain, and about 90 seconds later he was sprayed again, and then once more 30 seconds after that.
Eventually, prison staffers would spray him six times over 6 1/2 minutes, according to the lawsuit.
The suit adds that an incident report written by the captain overseeing the extraction noted that Padilla “was clearly not capable of submitting to handcuffs due to his mental state.”
Officers eventually opened the door, rushed in and forced Padilla to the ground, then “dragged him naked along the floor, and put him in arm and leg restraints,” the lawsuit states.
The suit contends that despite Padilla’s cries for help, none of the guards or mental health providers tried to de-escalate the situation.
The lawsuit contends Padilla’s treatment has exacerbated his mental illness and disrupted his family relationships.