California Moves to Change Solitary Confinement for Mentally Ill Prisoners

George Lavender

Mentally ill prisoners held in isolation in California will be housed in separate units away from other prisoners under a plan to improve care and comply with a court order, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

The cellblocks — while still isolating prisoners from the rest of the population and largely from one another — will increase the time those inmates are allowed outside their cells and the amount of treatment they receive.

In an undated memo to wardens filed in court Friday, state prisons director Michael Stainer described an intent to offer a robust mental health program” within what he called alternative segregated housing.”

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton immediately accepted the plan, submitted as part of a long-running class-action lawsuit, commending both the state and inmate lawyers for the substantial effort.” Continue reading…

As the New York Times reports, California incarcerates large numbers of mentally ill people. 

Prisons and jails around the country have seen the numbers of mentally ill inmates increase as state hospitals have closed and community mental health services have been reduced by budget cuts. California is no exception. More than 27 percent of male prisoners and almost 38 percent of female prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to department statistics. Continue reading…

Across the US, prisoners with mental illness are disproportionately likely to be held in isolation because their behavior violates strict prison behavioral rules. Writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2010, Jeffrey L Metzner and Jamie Fellner outlined some of the effects of isolation on prisoners.

Isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner, with the nature and severity of the impact depending on the individual, the duration, and particular conditions (e.g., access to natural light, books, or radio).

Psychological effects resulting from isolation can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.”

The adverse effects of solitary confinement are especially significant for persons with serious mental illness

California’s shift in policy has received a mixed response, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Attorneys for mentally ill prisoners praised the new isolation units, to be operated at 16 prisons under the dual command of prisons security staff and mental health administrators, as a substantial improvement.”

It is what they can do now, and make work,” said Michael Bien, a San Francisco lawyer.

Opponents to the use of solitary confinement said it continues what they characterize as an unlawful and dangerous form of punishment.

It is clearly a step in the right direction …but we’re not there yet,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney for inmates pressing a separate lawsuit over the use of prolonged isolation.

This is still solitary,” Lobel said. Instead of 23 hours a day in their cell, they are there 21, 22 hours a day. Do they get to exercise in small groups? Or are they still recreating’ by themselves?”

Officials denied that the units amount to solitary confinement. 

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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