California prison officials have adopted sweeping new policies intended to protect mentally ill prisoners from abusive force and punishment, including use of pepper spray and deep isolation in solitary confinement cells, reports the Los Angeles Times. The policies, outlined in court documents filed Friday, were developed in close negotiation with lawyers and a court-appointed special master assigned to look after the care of tens of thousands of mentally ill inmates in California’s sprawling prison system. An estimated 1 out of 3 inmates requires some level of mental health treatment.
The new policies require corrections officers to address a prisoner’s psychiatric state before deciding to use pepper spray or other force, with an emphasis on steps to avoid what the prison system calls “pain compliance.” The goal, state lawyers said, “is to systemically improve [the California prison system’s] practice and culture regarding both when and how force is used.” U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton had ordered changes in April after plaintiffs’ lawyers found videotapes of officers dousing screaming, psychotic inmates with copious amounts of the burning pepper spray in order to move them to a new cell or obey other orders. The tapes became public after the Times fought court orders sealing them.