San Francisco – March 18, 2013 – Lawyers representing prisoners with serious mental illness in California state prisons filed their opposition to the State of California’s motion to terminate Coleman v. Brown – the long-running 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. The motion will be argued in federal court in Sacramento on March 27.
The 99-page brief, which is supported by hundreds of pages of expert testimony from some of the nation’s leading experts in prison reform and mental health care, provides overwhelming evidence that the State has failed to follow court orders and the recommendations of its own staff and experts to address horrific conditions and violent, inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in state prisons – contributing to a suicide rate among prisoners that is far above the national average.
“The State, with Governor Brown cynically leading the charge, would like you to believe that the prison mental health care crisis has disappeared simply because they say it is so,” said Michael Bien of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, lead attorney for the Coleman class. “Realignment and a reduction in the prison population provided an opportunity for the state to solve the mental health crisis – instead the administration has gone on a PR and litigation offensive, rather than taking simple, affordable steps to change a dangerously flawed system.”
Bien continued, “The State maximized budget savings through massive layoffs of clinical staff, and cancellations and delays of building and upgrade projects, forcing overworked clinicians to work double-duty to take care of seriously ill patients in the same dangerous and inappropriate offices and treatment spaces that the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional less than two years ago.”
“This is a life and death struggle for those with mental illness subjected to isolation, violence, and neglect. Everyone at the State from the governor on down has failed to demonstrate they understand their obligations under the Constitution,” said Bien. “You only need to look at the photos that our experts took during their inspection visits last month to know that constitutional violations involving deliberate systemic indifference by the State in the treatment of prisoners have not been addressed.”
The plaintiffs’ five experts each filed detailed testimony with the court, have invested an extraordinary amount of time, effort and skill in investigating the current conditions of the California prison system: reviewing medical and correctional records, inspecting 11 major CDCR prisons, and reviewing numerous CDCR and Department of State Hospitals documents.
The experts include Dr. Craig Haney, Dr. Pablo Stewart, Dr. Edward Kaufman, Jeanne Woodford, the former Acting Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Warden of San Quentin Prison and Eldon Vail, former Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections. According to Vail in his declaration, California’s prison system “is an aberration, a system that continues to move in exactly the opposite direction from what is happening elsewhere in the U.S.”
Dr. Haney, Professor of Psychology, Director of the Legal Studies Program and Director of the Graduate Program in Social Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, notes in his declaration that California is still the second most overcrowded prison system in the U.S. behind only Alabama. Haney states, “Thus, even with the population reductions, California remains an outlier. It must be noted that some individual prisons are much more overcrowded than the overall system-wide figure indicates, and have scarcely benefitted from population reductions, if at all. It is also important to recognize that there has essentially been no reduction in the overall mentally ill prisoner population, even as the prison system itself has become somewhat less overcrowded.”
According to plaintiffs’ brief filed in U.S. Federal Court in Sacramento on Friday, “The truth is that Defendants are still acting with deliberate indifference to the staffing and resources needed to provide minimally humane mental health care to the Coleman class. The effects of Defendants’ systemic deliberate indifference are visible in severely understaffed mental health programs throughout the state where devoted and overworked clinicians struggle to provide care in dangerous conditions and without the support they deserve. They are visible on the faces of Coleman patients waiting in segregation units and holding cells for scarce treatment beds to free up. They are visible in a persistently high rate of suicides in California prison, the vast majority of which are avoidable and foreseeable, and in the long list of persons who have died unnecessarily in suicidal mental health crises in the year and half since Defendants ignored and buried the common-sense suicide prevention recommendations of their own nationally-recognized suicide prevention expert. The facts on the ground demonstrate that life-threatening constitutional violations are current and ongoing.”