It’s probably a good thing that psychotic prisoners have, in the words of California’s senior prison psychiatrist Dr. John Lindgren, “a higher than average threshold for pain or noxious stimuli” and the ability to forget trauma quickly.
Because until videos of screaming prisoners being doused with massive quantities of pepper spray surfaced in court last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) wasn’t considering changing its policy for handling combative prisoners. About one-third of California prisoners are mentally ill.
The videos “are honestly one of the reasons we will be revising our policy to provide additional guidelines,” CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer told the Los Angeles Times. He said he personally reviewed videos of 122 incidents and recognized that, “Staff out there really aren't using every bit of common sense and every bit of training,” and tighter rules are needed.
Better late than never, but it remains to be seen what kind of revisions will be in place before the department’s self-determined January 1 deadline.
The videos came to light in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, where a lawsuit challenging the state’s handling of mentally ill prisoners began this month. The suit seeks hospitalization of the most ill prisoners on death row, a ban on the use of pepper spray by corrections officers and other changes.
The federal courts began oversight of the state prison system in 2006 because of prison overcrowding and health issues that led to one prisoner death a week. Lawyers have now asked that the oversight be extended to mental-health care facilities and California’s Department of State Hospitals.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District ruled in August 2010 that using chemical agents on mentally-ill prisoners was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court upheld a lower-court decision that the authorities needed to consult medical authorities before dousing a prisoner. But that decision is not the law of the land.
Giant canisters of pepper spray—designed for crowd control, not small cells—are used in the videos to hose down a half-dozen prisoners, some naked and crying for help. An encounter can last three to five hours. The Sacramento Bee described one video showing a naked, screaming inmate hit with pepper spray before being dragged from his cell, strapped to a gurney and given a shot of an anti-psychotic medication. A doctor was present.
The state argued that pepper spray caused no long-term mental or physical harm to the prisoners, but the plaintiffs said the videos speak for themselves. Soon, the public may be able to decide for themselves. The videos have been shown in court but last Wednesday the judge said they should be made public.