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California prisons alter treatment of mentally ill

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

SACRAMENTO — California prison officials on Friday pledged to take a gentler approach with mentally ill inmates.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a federal court filing that it intends to change a systemwide protocol for restraining and isolating of 33,000 mentally ill offenders.

Several months ago, graphic images of prisoners being repeatedly doused with pepper spray in their cells were made public. Some of the mentally ill inmates were screaming and delirious.

The images spurred U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to rule in April that California's treatment of such inmates violates their constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.

Guards said they took the actions because the inmates refused to take their medications, would not leave their cells or defied orders in other ways.

The state now requires guards to consider the mental health condition of each inmate before using force and to employ the least amount of force necessary while seeking alternatives when there is no imminent threat of harm.

That generally requires guards to have a cool-down period before using force — time in which a mental health professional will try to intervene with the inmate.

Pepper spray cannot be used at all in many specialized mental health facilities within the prisons without the permission of a senior prison official.

Instead of physically dragging a combative inmate from a cell, guards will be allowed to enter the cell just long enough to administer the inmate's medication before withdrawing.

Attorneys representing inmates were cautiously optimistic, said Michael Bien, whose firm sued the state over its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

“It is going to be a culture change, a sea change, if they can actually do it,” he said.

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