San Francisco – April 5, 2013 – In a decision issued today by Judge Lawrence Karlton of the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, the court denied the State of California’s motion to terminate Coleman v. Brown – the lawsuit that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2011 that California must reduce prison overcrowding to address constitutional violations and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in California’s prisons. 

According to the decision, “this court finds that ongoing constitutional violations remain in this action and the prospective relief ordered by this court remains necessary to remedy those violations.”  Less than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court held that mental health care in California prisons was dangerously inadequate, state officials sought to terminate the case on the grounds that they had fixed the problems. 

The state’s motion was based on evidence gathered in secret prisonage inspections that included interviews with members of the plaintiff class of mentally ill prisoners without the permission of their counsel.  Legal ethics rules prohibit lawyers from interviewing represented parties in litigation without consent of opposing counsel.   Today, the court ruled that it could deny the state’s motion based on the ethics violations alone. 

But, recognizing the important issues at stake, the court continued its analysis—looking at all of the state’s evidence–even the improperly gathered evidence.  With full and due consideration of all of the state’s evidence, the court concluded that conditions remain intolerably dangerous for mentally ill prisoners.  Based on the state’s own evidence, the Court found that the state officials responsible for California prisons have failed to implement changes needed to remedy the unacceptably high right of prisoners suicides.  The Court found that the state has not adequately addressed mental health care in its segregation units.  The Court found that seriously mentally ill inmates still cannot access the necessary levels of care, and that the system still does not have enough crisis beds, but instead forces clinicians to use holding cells as temporary placements for inmates in crisis.  The Court also found that “chronic understaffing continues to hamper the delivery of constitutionally adequate medical care and is central part of the ongoing constitutional violation in this action.”  

“We are very pleased on behalf of the 33,000 prisoners with mental illness in state prisons who are members of the Coleman class that the court has denied the state’s wrong-headed attempt to terminate the case,” said Michael Bien of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, lead attorney for the Coleman class.  “The court’s decision allows us to get back to the real work of fixing a dangerously flawed mental health care system that’s shamed California for more than 20 years.”

Co-counsel Ernest Galvan continued, “This termination process cast a bright light onto continued human rights abuses in California prisons.  The best way for the state to respond to today’s order is to make every effort to fix the many parts of their system that remain broken.  When they have really fixed the system, then they should ask the court to re-visit ending this case.”

Selected Media Coverage

California Tries to Regain Fuller Control of Prisons, New York Times, April 20, 2013

Mental illness in California prisons – The Constitution requires better treatment and suicide prevention for inmates, New York Times, April 11

State not done fixing prison mental health, Sacramento Bee, April 10

Jerrry Brown should (still) be ashamed of California prisons, The Atlantic, April 8, 2013

Judge rejects California’s bid to end US court control of prison mental health care, Sacramento Bee, April 5, 2013

Judge refuses to end prison monitoring, San Francisco Chronicle, April 5, 2013

Judge denies Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to end prison oversight, Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2013

US Spurns California Move for Greater Say on Prisons, New York Times, April 5, 2013

California Prison Mental Health Care Left To Feds, Associated Press, April 5, 2013

Judge says California can’t retake control of prison mental health, Monterey County Herald, April 5, 2013

California prisons still too crowded, judge rules, Reuters, April 5, 2013