Politics & Government

Expert testifies that segregation is harmful to mentally ill inmates

An expert on conditions of confinement testified this week that mental illnesses of inmates in California’s prisons are allowed to worsen for months – and sometimes years – in segregated isolation, while their plight makes it easier to manage them.

When they suffer a total breakdown, they are transferred to a state Department of Hospitals’ inpatient facility, the expert testified.

Once they have improved, they are sent back to segregation, and their minds again start downhill, he said.

The testimony came over three days at the outset of an evidentiary hearing in Sacramento federal court on claims by inmates’ attorneys that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a practice of isolating mentally sick inmates, even though it inevitably makes them sicker.

At one point, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton interrupted the direct examination of Dr. Craig Haney, and asked if he feels the judge should issue an order that would, for the most part, exclude mentally ill inmates from segregation units.

“That is my strongly held view,” Haney replied. “Before a mentally ill patient is placed in segregation, he should be carefully screened to make sure he absolutely has to be there. And, appropriate treatment should not, under any circumstances, be interrupted, as it is now.”

Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has been studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement for more than 30 years.

He was called to the stand by inmates’ attorneys to attest to what they regard as a crisis requiring immediate action by Karlton.

Haney testified that he was retained to evaluate conditions of mentally ill inmates’ confinement and, in particular, whether those conditions have improved in the wake of a drastic reduction in prisoner population to comply with a 2009 court order.

Earlier this year, Haney said, he toured segregation units at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione; the California Institution for Men in Chino; California State Prison, Corcoran; and California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi.

In addition, he reviewed an extensive number of documents and conducted interviews with custodial and clinical staff and inmates at the prisons he visited, he said.

Segregated inmates, he said, generally spend all but an hour out of every 24 in their cells.

If a mentally ill inmate is taken out of the cell, it is usually because the preson is being transferred to a “cage,” roughly the size of the cell, at another location. There he can communicate with a clinician who is outside the cage, Haney said.

“It is, in many respects, a desperate and despairing existence,” he testified.

The effects of such conditions on healthy people are well-documented, he said, and “the effects are all the more acute for people who are suffering from mental illness.”

Used as ‘storage units?’

Corrections officials appear to be using segregation “as almost storage units” to better manage mentally ill inmates, “and that has not abated as the (general) population has been reduced. That is to say, they’re not there for disciplinary reasons ... but rather the system itself, for various reasons,” does not accommodate them in any other way.

Of the approximately 124,000 inmates in the prison system as of September, roughly 34,000 have been diagnosed with varying degrees of mental illness, according to Haney. Of those, he said, approximately 3,150 are in segregated housing.

In opening remarks Tuesday, lead lawyer for the inmates Michael Bien told Karlton that to segregate seriously mentally ill inmates for extended periods, even if adequate treatment is afforded, “arguably tiptoes on the boundary of cruel and unusual punishment.”

But when they are segregated without substantive treatment “we’re well over that boundary. It is unconstitutional.”

On cross examination, Deputy Attorney General Debbie Vorous was unable to cast much doubt on the testimony given by Haney on direct examination by inmate attorney Aaron Fischer.

But in a court brief filed as part of the walkup to the hearing, Vorous wrote that “no court has mandated a blanket exclusion of mentally ill inmates from prison disciplinary systems or security settings designed to preserve safety and order, provided that these measures do not interfere with the necessary” treatment.

“Inmates are not housed in segregated units with inadequate access to treatment, unnecessarily harsh conditions, or insufficient safety measures,” she wrote.

Vorous quoted the state’s expert witness, Dr. Charles Scott, as saying the studies that Haney is relying on are “insufficient to establish a causal connection between the segregated prison setting and the behaviors observed with a reliable degree of medical or scientific certainty.”

Witness to dispute claims

Describing Scott – a professor of clinical psychiatry at UC Davis – as “a licensed psychiatrist with significant experience in providing mental health services to inmates in a correctional type setting,” Vorous cited a Scott declaration filed with her brief as evidence that several scientific studies “indicate … segregation does not cause the type of severity of psychological harms described by Haney.”

Scott will testify later in the hearing, which will resume Dec. 4.