California will shift mentally ill inmates into separate isolation units, offer more treatment

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FILE -- In this July 24, 2014 file photo, an inmate is seen in one of the cells at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. In an agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Friday, Aug. 29, state corrections official have agreed to shift mentally ill inmates into specialized housing units instead of placing them in the same isolation units as are used for other inmates, Friday, Aug. 29.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)


FILE -- In this July 24, 2014 file photo, an inmate sits by a window at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. In an agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Friday, Aug. 29, state corrections official have agreed to shift mentally ill inmates into specialized housing units instead of placing them in the same isolation units as are used for other inmates, Friday, Aug. 29.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)


SACRAMENTO, California — State corrections officials on Friday agreed to shift mentally ill inmates into separate specialized housing that will offer them more treatment instead of placing them in the same isolation units as other inmates, a decision that marks a major shift in how the system deals with such prisoners.

The agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento comes after a federal judge ruled in April that California's treatment of mentally ill inmates violates constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton acted after the release of videos made by correctional officers that showed guards pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.

Under the agreement, the state will create separate short- and long-term housing units for about 2,500 mentally ill inmates who prison officials say must be kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons. The agreement calls for them to get more treatment and more time out of their prison cells.

"These new policies emphasize treatment while in segregation, increased focus on the lengths of stay in segregation, and a thorough review of an inmate's risk of decompensation from being housed in segregation upon release from inpatient care," the department said in its filing.

Michael Bien, whose firm sued the state over its treatment of mentally ill inmates, called the state's decision "a gigantic change" and "a tremendous step forward" in removing mentally ill inmates from the state's notorious security housing units and administration segregation units. Experts have said the harsh conditions and sensory deprivation of the isolation units can worsen psychiatric conditions.

The isolation units at Pelican Bay and other state prisons drew widespread attention in recent years as thousands of inmates statewide temporarily refused prison-issued meals to protest conditions.

"There appears to be a recognition after the trial and the judge's ruling that segregation is a dangerous place and it should be used as little as possible and for as short a time as possible for the mentally ill," Bien said.

Among the changes:

— Mentally ill inmates will be housed in separate short- and long-term "restricted housing units" instead of existing isolation units.

— They will get more hours of individual and group therapy and more frequent visits with mental health professionals.

— They will be let out of their cells more often, for exercise, therapy and for communal time with other inmates.

— They will have more diversions while they are locked in their cells, including televisions and radios.

— Inmates deemed too ill for segregation will be diverted to other units with even more mental health treatment.

— The state will individually review the cases of inmates with long segregation terms to see if the inmates need to be in solitary confinement and to develop a plan to get them back into the general population.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement that his department will continue to work "to make lasting cultural changes" in how it treats mentally ill inmates.

Karlton approved the state's plan less than three hours after it was filed in his court.

It was Karlton's last official act in the complicated case he has overseen for 24 years, a lawsuit that has helped prompt sweeping changes in the state's prison system, including a sharp reduction in inmate overcrowding.

Moments later, Chief Judge Morrison England reassigned the case to U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller because Karlton is retiring from the bench.

The separate long-term facilities are planned at three prisons, while the short-term facilities will be at nine of the state's 34 prisons. The department could not immediately say how much the shift will cost, but most of the mentally ill inmates will be housed in existing prison segregation units that will be converted to their use.

The changes affect more than 30,000 inmates who suffer from severe depression and mental illness that is generally controlled by medication and therapy. About 2,500 inmates in that group are in segregation units on any given day.

The most severely mentally ill inmates, who generally need institutional care, already have their own specialized isolation units. The state also agreed to individually review their cases.

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