Politics & Government

Inmate attorneys allege mental health crisis on Death Row

Justin Alan Helzer’s suicidal tendencies were hardly a secret.

He dropped out of college in 1998 because of suicidal thoughts, according to court testimony. Within two years, he was arrested in the slayings and dismemberment of five Bay Area residents, whose bodies were stuffed into duffel bags and dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He announced during the ensuing trial that he would be better off dead.

Sentenced to die in 2004, his psychotic episodes and delusions continued once he arrived on death row at San Quentin State Prison. He blinded himself in 2010 by thrusting ballpoint pens through both eyeballs, and overdosed twice, with methadone and then heroin.

Despite this, Helzer was never referred for psychiatric treatment and hanged himself in his cell last April, leaving a trail of ignored warning signs that an expert in forensic psychiatry testified Wednesday was unprecedented in his experience.

“I’m sort of losing my ability to adequately express my amazement at how this case was progressing,” Dr. Pablo Stewart testified in federal court in Sacramento as part of a landmark effort by inmate attorneys to make a case for overhauling California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Helzer, who was 41 at the time of his death, was identified in court only as inmate “WWW,” but the incidents described were clearly drawn from his life. He was one of several inmates whose cases are being presented to U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton as examples of what Stewart called “woefully inadequate” mental health care on death row.

The state maintains that mental health care services provided to inmates have improved dramatically in recent years and now rival what is available to private citizens. Attorneys for the state argue in court papers that “San Quentin staff has superior knowledge, experience and training concerning inmates who remain in their care for years and, perhaps, decades.”

Attorneys for the inmates, in contrast, contend that mentally ill prisoners, particularly condemned inmates, still have minimal access to treatment.

Their argument is not likely to win over the victims’ rights advocates and criminal justice experts working on an initiative for the fall 2014 ballot that would speed up the time between conviction and execution in California. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, noted that if Helzer had been convicted in Virginia, he more than likely would have been executed long before he committed suicide.

“I don’t dispute that as long as they are incarcerated there is a requirement to provide medical care,” Scheidegger said in an interview. “The length of time that we are required to provide that care is a result of the failure to enact reforms.”

The attorneys for the inmates say the level of mental health care for condemned prisoners is so substandard that Karlton should order a mental health assessment of death row prisoners and creation of a psychiatric center there to handle all levels of treatment.

Currently, condemned inmates deemed to have serious psychiatric needs can be sent to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, but Stewart testified that they are held there in single-celled “severe isolation,” with no group therapy, no ability to interact with other inmates, no use of day rooms, and no access to the prison yard.

The conditions are so “harsh,” he said, that inmates at San Quentin see a move to Vacaville as punishment, preferring to stay at San Quentin rather than receive treatment.

Stewart testified that prison officials at San Quentin at one pointed considered sending “WWW” to Vacaville for treatment, but discarded the idea because they felt it would be “too stressful” for him. He described medieval existences for some inmates he saw among the condemned when he toured death row in February.

Some had become what he described as “cell dwellers,” prisoners so mentally ill they did not leave their cells for years at a time; one had not even sat up in bed for months, he said.

Staffers at the prison were “quite chagrined and even embarrassed” by the conditions of some inmates, Stewart testified. One inmate he described as “quite memorable” was unable to speak, but nodded and took notes “furiously” as Stewart interviewed him, he said. The “notes,” Stewart added, later turned out to be nonsensical “gibberish.”

Another was convinced that his cell in the prison’s East Block “had been a church and he’d been living there since he was 10 years old,” Stewart said. That inmate began saving his feces because he believed it had value as “money” among inmates.

“I hate to sound like a broken record, but these people are some of the more severely psychotic patients in the state of California,” Stewart said, yet “the level of care does not match their needs.”