The following press release was distributed on August 1. RBGG has been representing the Coleman plaintiffs for more than 20 years.
San Francisco – August 1, 2014 – In response to a sweeping federal court order in April finding that the use of force and excessive solitary confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness was unconstitutionally harsh and harmful, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) has filed new policies and procedures with the court which it represents will remedy the Constitutional violations.
Plaintiffs’ counsel has been working with the Special Master overseeing California’s prison mental health system and his staff to provide feedback to the CDCR as it develops new use of force and segregation policies to meet the mandates of the Court’s order. The parties have been working together to ensure there are adequate protections for inmates with serious mental illness within CDCR, while at the same time ensuring the safety of CDCR staff and mental health clinicians.
“The new CDCR guidelines are a positive step in bringing to an end the harsh treatment of mentally ill prisoners in California,” said Michael Bien, a partner with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld in San Francisco and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “While CDCR did not adopt everything that plaintiffs requested, we are pleased to report that the agency is proposing meaningful reforms that go a long way to addressing the some of the critical issues we raised during the trial last fall.”
After weeks of graphic courtroom testimony in federal court in 2013, including “horrific” videos of inmates with mental illness being blasted with pepper spray, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton issued the April 10, 2014 order.
“The new policies include a limitation on the amount and duration of the use of pepper spray, especially as it relates to inmates locked in their cells,” said Jeffrey Bornstein, a partner with K&L Gates in San Francisco and co-counsel for plaintiffs. “They also tighten the definition of what constitutes an imminent threat that will allow the use of immediate force, as opposed to a controlled use of force that has extra protections built in for the safety of the inmates and staff, especially those inmate-patients who have mental illness.”
The new CDCR policies also put forward a “sea change” in the way that staff is to be trained regarding use of force options, especially as it relates to mentally ill inmate-patients to require that they view the totality of circumstances before using force, including the inmates’ demeanor, mental health status and his or her ability to understand and/or comply with staff’s orders. Custody staff is also mandated to work closely with medical and mental health staff before forcibly removing an inmate from a cell for medication or other treatment.
Another area addressed by the new policies and procedures is “non-disciplinary” segregation. “We have agreed with the state’s proposed rules to end the dangerous practice of placing prisoners in solitary confinement for ‘no fault of their own’ and simply for the convenience of the prison system,” said Bien.
Hundreds of prisoners with mental illness will be removed from solitary confinement under this new policy that is to be fully implemented before the end of the year. When fully implemented, strict time limits on non-disciplinary segregation will require CDCR to rapidly process and remove these prisoners and to provide them with additional privileges and out of cell time during the short period they are in segregation.
Plaintiffs’ counsel note, however, that serious issues still remain, especially in regards to the alarming suicide rate for prisoners with mental illness housed in CDCR’s solitary confinement units. “It is urgent that CDCR fully comply with the Court’s order and limit to the greatest extent possible the housing of prisoners with serious mental illness in its harsh and dangerous solitary confinement units,” said Bien. “In the first seven months of 2014 alone, 11 of the 14 total suicides have occurred in CDCR’s solitary confinement units, which house less than 10% of CDCR’s population. Of the 11 solitary confinement suicides in 2014, ten were prisoners with serious mental illness and six of those were at the EOP (Enhanced Outpatient Program) level of care.”
Bien continued: “This continues the deadly trend of avoidable and unnecessary solitary confinement suicides in CDCR’s prisons, especially for prisoners with mental illness. In 2013, 17 of the 30 CDCR suicides took place in solitary confinement units. Of the 17 solitary confinement suicides in 2013, 10 were prisoners with serious mental illness and four were EOP.”
“While we are heartened by the new approach being taken by CDCR, we know that the kind of change and direction that is needed will be difficult to achieve without the commitment of all of CDCR’s constituencies from the Governor and legislature to the custody staff working the individual shifts,” said Bornstein. “Training and on-going oversight and monitoring will be key. But so will a recognition that this new approach is one that is not only more humane but has a greater likelihood of protecting inmates and staff in the long run.”
The State’s new policies are available here: Defendants Plans and Policies Submitted in Response to April 10 2014 and May 13 2014 Orders
For more information on the case see: Coleman v. Brown: Court Orders, Reports, Photos, Expert Declarations and Media Coverage.
Selected press coverage, including quotes by Mike Bien and Jeff Bornstein:
California revises policy on mentally ill inmates, New York Times, August 2, 2014
California prisons alter ‘use of force’ policies for mentally ill inmates, Sacramento Bee, August 1, 2014
California prisons alter treatment of mentally ill, Associated Press, August 1, 2014
California adopts new policies on treatment of mentally ill inmates, Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2014
California revises rules on use of force for mentally ill inmates, Reuters, August 2, 2014