California Curbs Pepper Spray Use, Physical Force

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Policies concerning the treatment of mentally ill inmates in California correctional facilities underwent significant changes on August 1. A months-long legal battle over the use of physical force and pepper spray, ended with the approval of revised procedures aimed at reducing harm to inmates living with mental illness.

The newly approved policies require California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officers to evaluate both the medical and mental health status of an inmate before using force. Correctional staff must also determine an inmate’s ability to understand and comply with orders, and observe a “cool-down period” allowing mental health providers an opportunity to mitigate the situation.

Additionally, the CDCR will limit the use of pepper spray, banning it altogether in some facilities, and reduce or end the use of isolation for mentally ill inmates. Disagreements between correctional staff and mental health providers over the application of force must now be mediated and determined by higher-level prison officials.

According to court documents, the new 69-page policy “represents a sweeping culture change for (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), as it expects staff to step back and evaluate the totality of the circumstances, whenever circumstances permit, before using force.”

As nearly 30 percent of the state’s more than 133,000 adult inmates are living with mental illness, these changes are expected to “foster collaboration between custody and mental health, and provide for a strong sustainable process ensuring that mentally ill inmates will continue to receive quality, constitutionally adequate medical care.”

These policy changes come nearly a year after the September 2013 death of inmate Joseph Duran, who suffered from mental illness and required a breathing tube. Correctional officers used pepper spray on Duran, then in an isolation cell, after he refused to release the food port in his cell door. Despite requests from medical staff, correctional officers did not remove Duran from his cell for treatment and decontamination, claiming it was too dangerous. Duran died in his cell seven hours later.

The use of physical force and pepper spray was the key issue in the lawsuit brought against the state by lawyers representing California inmates months before Duran’s death. During the hearings, jurors were shown six videos of correctional staff using extreme force and dousing mentally ill inmates with the chemical for various infractions. Such force was ruled a violation of inmates’ constitutional rights by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in April 2014, who in a 74-page ruling called the treatment “horrific”.

Karlton’s ruling tasked the department with developing a plan to limit or eliminate the use of segregation units, and to alter strip search policies for mentally ill inmates entering and exiting housing units. Karlton also made recommendations for curbing the use of pepper spray on such inmates. These recommendations formed the foundation of the newly approved policies.

Speaking with the Sacramento Bee, inmate attorney Jeffrey Bornstein called the court’s decision “a great first step,” adding that the policies seem “to mandate a more collaborative approach.”