Better mental health care, less litigation

Gov. Jerry Brown announced an appeal in 2013 to end federal court oversight of state prisons. Now, the administration is working with prisoners’ attorneys to resolve the case.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced an appeal in 2013 to end federal court oversight of state prisons. Now, the administration is working with prisoners’ attorneys to resolve the case. RBenton@sacbee.com

In January 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown stood beside legal briefs stacked several feet high from lawsuits over prison conditions, and demanded that federal courts give the state back the authority to run its prisons, including providing care for mentally ill inmates.

“We can run our own prisons,” Brown said, announcing another appeal of yet another federal court order requiring that California prisons meet constitutional standards.

On May 20, that defiance officially concluded. Attorneys for California and prisoners signed a 34-word agreement dropping the appeal, and perhaps signaling generation-long litigation over how California treats felons who are mentally ill is nearing its end.

A court-appointed officer still oversees mental health care in California prisons. But something extraordinary is happening. State authorities are working to resolve litigation over prison crowding, and improve care of mentally ill inmates. That’s worthy of praise.

This change comes after years of biting court orders, damning reports documenting poor health and mental health care, and a brutal Supreme Court ruling compelling the state to reduce the number of inmates.

The Bee’s Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh reported on the state’s new attitude in December. In interviews after the state dropped its appeal, prisoner rights attorneys, who have spent the bulk of their careers fighting the state, praised corrections officials.

“The state has stopped fighting and started working collaboratively,” said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office.

In the coming year, state prisons will house 128,000 inmates, down from a high of more than 170,000 a decade ago. As the number of inmates falls, Specter said, care improves.

Michael Bien, another plaintiffs lawyer, talked of “an atmosphere of trust.” Bien brought the suit in 1990 on behalf of Ralph Coleman, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, who has been in prison since 1979, having been convicted of two murders.

Jeffrey Beard, director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is a psychologist, which helps. He understands better than most people the complexities of imprisoning mentally ill people.

As of last week, California prisons housed 37,309 men and women who have a diagnosis of mental illness, including 7,862 who are severely mentally ill. The overall number amounts to 29 percent of the prison population, and a 3,787-inmate increase since 2013, when Brown held his news conference.

In an indication of improved care, there have been 11 suicides so far this year, after 23 last year. That’s down from 30 in 2013, and 43 in 2006 when the prison population hovered at an all-time high.

To reduce suicide, the state checks on inmates in segregation and on death row every 30 minutes, and provides continuous observation for some inmates. The state built a 39-bed psychiatric unit at San Quentin State Prison for condemned inmates, and a 30-bed facility at Vacaville.

Through his orders, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who presided over the case, sought to enforce the constitutional requirement that government provide care to mentally ill people who are imprisoned. Sadly, there is no such requirement for people who have committed no crime but are too ill to care for themselves.

Although California spends billions annually on mental health programs, holes remain. Too little gets spent on children who are ill. Too few residential facilities exist to provide crisis care. Too many mentally ill people are homeless, which subjects them to becoming victims, and leads them to commit acts of desperation. Incarceration is, at root, emblematic of the failings of the mental health care system.

All that is fodder for another day. For now, most California prison inmates who need care are getting it. Yes, it has taken 25 years. Still, the improvement and desire to get better still are praiseworthy.