Legal Corner – Coleman v. Wilson on mental health

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
In 1995, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District, in Coleman v. Wilson, held that the entire mental health system of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) was unconstitutional and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the needs of mentally ill prisoners. All 33 prisons were placed under monitoring by a court-appointed special master (Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F.Supp. 1282 (E.D.Cal. 1995).
Judge Moulds found the following:
(1) no adequate mechanism for screening prisoners either at reception or during their incarceration since at least 1987;
(2) serious and chronic understaffing;
(3) no system that insured the competence of the mental health staff, which meant prisoners could not access competent care;
(4) significant delays and complete denials of medical attention along with inappropriate use of involuntary medication;
(5) punitive measures used inappropriately which further impacted the mental health of prisoners;
(6) an ?extreme? deficiency in the medical records system;
(7) failure to implement a suicide prevention program; and,
(8) substantial evidence of prison officials deliberate indifference to the deficiencies in their system.
One of the punitive measures the court was referring to was the placement of mentally ill prisoners in administrative segregation (ad seg) and security housing units (SHU). The court noted that this caused even less access to mental health services. Another was the use of tasers and 37mm guns on mentally ill prisoners despite the fact that those prisoners? behavior may have been the result of a psychiatric condition.
The court found that the policies in place at that time regarding housing mentally ill prisoners in ad seg and the SHU violated the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution that protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.
Regarding the use of tasers and 37mm guns on mentally ill prisoners, the court again found a violation of the Eighth Amendment due to the fact that that there was “nothing of record suggesting a penological justification for distinction between inflicting physical as contrasted with mental injury.” (Coleman, at 1323). The court concluded that defendants had used the weapons on prisoners with mental disorders without regard to what effect that might have on the person?s psychiatric condition.
In conclusion, the court adopted Judge Moulds’ recommendations and recognized that attending to the serious constitutional deficiencies was an urgent matter. Certain protocols were to be in place within 30, 60, or 90 days and the court upheld those time limits. One such protocol was that a standardized screening process would be developed within 30 days despite defendants? objections that 30 days was not enough time. The court noted that defendant Gomez had testified more than one year previously (in 1994) that a standardized screening practice was necessary and the court expected that during that time defendants had been working on the problem. The court also noted that the special master?s responsibility was two-fold: “to provide expert advice to the defendants to aid in ensuring that their decisions regarding the provision of mental health care to class members conform to the requirements of the federal constitution, and to advise the court concerning issues relevant to assessing defendants’ compliance with their Constitutional obligations.” (Coleman, at 1324).
There was also another lawsuit in 1995 that raised the issue of mental health care in California prisons. That case, Madrid v. Gomez (889 F.Supp. 1146, (N.D. Cal. 1995)), was brought on behalf of prisoners incarcerated at Pelican Bay. Among other issues, the court addressed the issue of confining prisoners with mental health problems to the SHU or ad seg and concluded that the isolation the men suffered exacerbated their mental health problems. Unlike the Coleman case, the findings and recommendations in Madrid applied only to Pelican Bay and none of the other prisons in the state.
However, despite the courts’ findings and recommendations in both Coleman and Madrid, prisoners with mental illness in California prisons continue to suffer from a lack of services and qualified prison staff to address their mental illness. Deaths through suicide continue to occur and one can only assume that the CDCR just doesn?t care about the people it incarcerates.