SACRAMENTO — Attorneys who represent California inmates asked a federal judge Wednesday to expand the court’s oversight of prison mental health care to include the Department of State Hospitals.
The department is responsible for treatment at some of California’s 33 adult prisons, including one in Soledad that is at the center of the current legal tussle between the state and inmate advocates.
Deputy Attorney General Debbie Vorous, representing the state, told U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton that the state is providing proper care.
But advocates and their first expert witness said two recent examples show that mental health treatment has not improved sufficiently in the prison system despite years of federal oversight.
Two inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison died despite having histories of trying to harm themselves, they said on the first day of what is expected to be a hearing lasting several days.
An inmate identified only as “prisoner A” hanged himself in November, the first suicide since the facility opened in 2003, said Dr. Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrist who toured the facility along with other state prisons. The prisoner had been sent to Salinas Valley from California State Prison, Sacramento, because he had tried to kill himself there and then cut his own arm in another attempt a week before he succeeded.
He left a message scrawled on his cell wall saying that he’d come to Salinas Valley slightly depressed but his condition had only worsened.
“This place is hopeless,” he wrote before hanging himself, according to Stewart’s testimony.
A second inmate, identified as “prisoner RR,” died in March of “water intoxication,” an easily treatable mental health symptom where the inmate drank so much water that he caused a fatal imbalance in his bodily fluids, Stewart testified. Salinas Valley’s staff knew he had the problem because he’d been sent to an outside hospital for treatment of complications the same condition in November, he said.
The incidents illustrate problems in treatment programs both at Salinas Valley and at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, the advocates said.
The psychiatric units are understaffed, inmates are released from treatment too early or wait too long to get in, and patients often lack for basic necessities like soap, clothing and bedding, said Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing inmates’ welfare.
“People’s lives are at stake,” Bien told Karlton. “Lives have been lost in the last six months.”
Vorous, the deputy attorney general, said some staffing problems have been caused as the state prepares to shift many mentally ill inmates to a new facility in Stockton beginning next month. But she said the state has adequate plans to make sure inmates continue receiving proper care.
“That is not the same as deliberate indifference,” she said, arguing that the problems are not enough to violate inmates’ constitutional rights. There is no evidence the two inmate deaths were a result of inadequate care, she said.
Inmates’ advocates want a court-appointed special master to oversee prison facilities operated by the Department of State Hospitals as well as the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation because “these defendants cannot be trusted,” Bien told the judge.
The new effort grew out of Karlton’s decision in April to reject the state’s bid to end court oversight of mental health programs. Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration also wants to end six years of federal control of prison medical care. The administration also is fighting a separate court order requiring the state to further reduce its prison population by year’s end after judges ruled that reducing crowding is the best way to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates.
Bien said even more problems with inmates’ care surfaced during the recent court battles with Brown’s administration.
Karlton is planning separate hearings in coming months on complaints that the state provides inadequate care for inmates on death row at San Quentin State Prison who have serious mental health issues, that guards are too quick to use overwhelming force against mentally troubled inmates, and that mentally ill inmates are improperly placed in segregation units where they lack for proper care.