Reforms for Mentally Ill Inmates

SAN QUENTIN COUNSELOR. George Williams, S.J., has worked 20 years with California inmates.

The State of California’s Corrections Department will end its policy of isolating mentally ill inmates for up to 23 hours a day and instead move them into specialized housing, where they will receive more humane treatment.

The move, announced on Aug. 29, comes after U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in April that the state’s overall treatment of its mentally ill inmates violated their constitutional rights and constituted excessive punishment. Amid the evidence presented during the case were videos of correction officers pumping multiple canisters of pepper spray into cells as mentally ill inmates within howled in pain.

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Under the new policy the state will provide separate, short-term accommodation at three of the state’s 34 prisons and long-term accommodation at nine others for up to 2,500 mentally ill inmates who require some sort of isolation for disciplinary reasons. While there, they will have access to individual and group therapy and visits with mental health professionals. They will be allowed more time outside their cells and have some access to television or radio. The state also took the additional, not mandated step of instituting a case-by-case review of all inmates in psychiatric units, with the hope of returning those who no longer pose a threat to less restrictive units.

In a statement for the California Catholic Conference, Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey, chair of the conference’s steering committee on Prison Ministry and Correction, voiced “cautious optimism” about the newly announced procedures. “They are definitely a step in the right direction,” Bishop Garcia writes, “but they are long overdue. It has been 20 years since the courts first ruled that mentally ill people should not be housed in the Special Housing Unit.”

George Williams, S.J., Catholic chaplain at California’s San Quentin State Prison, has over 20 years experience in prison work. He likewise calls the news “very encouraging.”

“Taking already unstable people and locking them up in small cells without TV or radios for weeks or months on end as ‘punishment’,” he said, “was not helping either the prisoners or their keepers.”

Bishop Garcia indicated that during the next two months the C.C.C. Restorative Justice Committee will be closely watching the department’s training on these new procedures. “This period will be an important indication as to how effective the new policy will be.”

Questions persist about the use of isolation in California state prisons. Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s highest security prison, regularly keeps prisoners in solitary for years on end. Some have been kept in isolation for over two decades.

In 2013, 30,000 inmates in such units throughout the state held a state-wide hunger strike to protest conditions. After two months the legislature agreed to hold hearings on the conditions in California’s maximum security prisons. This June, District Judge Claudia Wilken gave a group of Pelican Bay inmates class action status in a lawsuit about their treatment against the state.

“Most of the men and women I have ministered to in isolation units,” says Father Williams, “have been traumatized by violence in their lives—often since childhood. It seemed clear to me that the experience of being tackled to the ground, handcuffed and shackled and put in empty cells for days and weeks at a time served to re-traumatize them.”

But when it comes to the mentally ill, Stephen Barber, S.J., who served for 14 years as Catholic chaplain at San Quentin, points out that the issues are often complex. “Among certain prison populations, the mentally ill are targeted by other inmates.” Single-cell housing becomes an important means of protection, one that “many inmates prefer.”

Barber also notes that much of the plight of the mentally ill in California prisons today can be traced back to then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s decision in the 1970s to close many state-run mental health facilities. “Many of these men and women,” he said, “now live in prisons as a direct consequence of that barbaric act.”

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