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California to ease punishment for mentally ill inmates who act out because of their illness

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SACRAMENTO, California — California prison officials said Friday they are changing state policy so mentally ill inmates who act out can get counseling instead of being automatically sent to isolation cells or kept in prison longer.

It is the latest in a series of policy shifts after a federal judge ruled a year ago that the state's treatment of mentally ill inmates violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, in part because their illness isn't taken into account when they are disciplined.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton acted after the release of videos made by correctional officers that showed guards pumping pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some of them screaming and delirious.

The tactics were used on inmates who refused to take medication, be handcuffed or leave their cells.

The new policy was filed Friday in federal court in Sacramento.

"This is a very significant reform of the disciplinary process for prisoners with mental illness," said Michael Bien, an attorney representing mentally ill inmates in the long-running lawsuit. "What's the point of punishing someone who's psychotic?"

The change is good for inmates and taxpayers, Bien said, because keeping inmates in disciplinary segregation is expensive and keeps them in prison longer by taking away early release credits at a time when the state is under a federal court order to reduce the inmate population.

Corrections officials declined to comment beyond the court filings.

A scathing report in January by court-appointed monitor Matthew Lopes found that for 7 1/2 years the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed to follow a court directive requiring prison employees to evaluate whether inmates' misbehavior was involuntarily prompted by mental illness or was a deliberate choice that merited discipline.

Lopes attributed what he called the "disturbing ... pervasive" failure to a lack of training on prison policies for dealing with mentally ill people.

"He's refusing orders or flailing around, which is the kind of thing that psychotic people do," Bien said of the sort of behavior that has brought disciplinary action in the past. "When you bang on your cell or mouth off at your custody officer, let's talk about that. ... Don't punish him and send him somewhere else."

California is one of the few states to try to move away from punishing inmates for behavior that results from mental illness, he said. Bien credited the department, and particularly Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, for making the policy change without waiting for another court order.

In August, the department agreed to create specialized housing and provide more treatment for mentally ill inmates who are moved into solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.

The latest ruling "is intended to solve the other half of that problem: Why are they going there in the first place?" Bien said.

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