SACRAMENTO — Videos showing California prison guards blasting the cells of mentally ill inmates with pepper spray were shown publicly for the first time Tuesday as the latest legal battle over the state’s treatment of prisoners got underway.
Attorneys for mentally ill inmates say the two videos shown and others expected to be played as the federal trial continues are compelling evidence that state officials should revise policies for using force against the mentally ill.
The videos from Corcoran and Kern Valley state prisons show inmates shrieking after pepper spray is used and eventually being forcibly removed from their cells.
In one video, a prison staffer identified as a psychologist is shown talking to an uncooperative inmate, who repeatedly refuses to be handcuffed so he can be taken for an evaluation. Guards clad in special protective gear, including masks and shin guards, appear outside the cell.
A spraying sound can be heard and the inmate begins to scream. Guards tell him to allow himself to be handcuffed as he continues crying out.
“Somebody help me!” the naked inmate shouts. He is eventually handcuffed after chemicals are repeatedly sprayed into the cell, but he then begins fighting with guards when they hold him on the floor outside the cell.
Eldon Vail, the former director of the Washington state prison system, testified that the force used in that video and a second one shown Tuesday appeared excessive. He said it appeared that the inmate shouting for help was not lucid enough to respond to guards after the first round of pepper spray.
Vail, an expert hired by the inmates’ attorneys, also criticized a follow-up report for not questioning what led to the use of force. “What there wasn’t was a discussion of how we got there,” he said.
Lawyers representing the state said in opening statements that the force shown in the videos followed sometimes hours of clinical interventions and other steps to assist inmates. They said the inmates’ attorneys did not properly review the agency’s statewide policy for using force.
“There’s simply no pattern of practice of excessive use of force against the mentally ill,” said California Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney, adding that any use of force is later reviewed at several levels.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration unsuccessfully sought to keep the videos from being shown in open court. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton denied that request and ruled that the videos can be shown publicly.
Karlton ordered that copies of the videos will not be made publicly available. The names of prison guards and inmates seen in the videos also must not be disclosed outside the courtroom.
The Los Angeles Times challenged that order Tuesday, arguing that the court should not be able to stop the newspaper from deciding whether to publish information presented publicly. Karlton revised his order to say all names from the videos would be stricken from the record and not public information.
This latest trial comes after the Brown administration earlier this year asked to retake control of its prison mental health system from a court-appointed overseer. A judge rejected that request, and the pepper-spray videos were among a set of newly discovered problems.
Lawyers representing California inmates said in their opening statements that the method and amount of force used by state guards against mentally ill prisoners is unconstitutional.
“Use of force and the disciplinary part of this case is based on the following truism, that (the state correctional department) punishes people because of their mental illness,” said Jeff Bornstein, one of the inmates’ attorneys.
Bornstein said they will show as many as 17 graphic videos of guards using pepper spray and other tactics to subdue mentally ill inmates.
They also are criticizing the state’s treatment death row inmates, who they say have not had proper access to mental health care.
Attorneys for the prisoners are asking the court to do a one-time sweep of death row to identify prisoners in need of mental health care. They also are requesting the state be required to revise its policies for when force can be used against mentally ill inmates and to increase the role of mental health professionals in the discipline process.