Editorial: State prisons should not be a modern Bedlam

The terrible death of Joseph Duran should erase any doubt that prisons are the wrong places for severely mentally ill prisoners, not that there had been any question before.

As The Bee’s Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh reported in painful detail last week, Duran died Sept. 7 at Mule Creek State Prison seven hours after he was pepper-sprayed.

Agitated and coated in spray, Duran yanked out his breathing tube, and began coughing up blood and stuffing pasta into the hole in his throat. Guards left him in his cell, rejecting orders from medical staff that he be extracted, cleansed of pepper spray and have his breathing tube reinserted.

A psychiatrist who was part of a corrections system death review team said she believed Duran used the pasta to soothe irritation from the pepper spray and that his death likely was preventable. The Amador County coroner concluded the case was a suicide.

Although the reason for his death may be in dispute, there is no doubt that Duran was severely mentally ill. He was in a mental illness crisis cell when he was pepper-sprayed and died.

Correctional officers are not nurses or psychiatric technicians. But increasingly, prison officers must handle mentally ill prisoners. For years, 20 percent of the prison population was mentally ill. But as the number of prisoners declines, the percentage who are mentally ill rises.

Last year, California prisons counted the number of inmates diagnosed with significant mental illness at 33,777, including 6,051 with severe conditions such as schizophrenia. That number represented slightly less than 30 percent of the overall prison population.

As of Friday, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation placed the number of inmates diagnosed with significant psychiatric issues at 36,067, including 6,360 with severe mental illness. That’s 30.7 percent of the 117,497 inmates.

The state has spent billions trying to improve mental health care in the prisons in recent decades, much of it in response to the suit pending before U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton.

Karlton, who has ordered a hearing into Duran’s death, has been overseeing a class-action law suit involving mental health care in state prisons since the 1990s. Gov. Jerry Brown has been seeking to have the order lifted. Duran’s death won’t help the governor’s case.

Notably, Duran’s parents told Stanton that they were relieved whenever their son was incarcerated, given how troubled he was.

“At least he was getting fed,” Elaine Duran, his mother said. “It is sad to say, but that’s true,” Steven Duran added.

It shouldn’t be this way.

Californians must find the gumption and compassion to care for severely mentally people. If they cannot survive in their own homes, they must be placed in psychiatric hospitals. The prison system should not be a modern-day Bedlam.

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