California Governor Jerry Brown’s bid to end federal control over the state prison system’s mental health system was denied in federal court on Friday, April 5, in a sharply worded ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. In the 68-page ruling, Judge Karlton determined that “systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs.”
The ruling comes following months of campaigning and litigating by Governor Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to end federal oversight of the California prison system. Friday’s ruling is the latest enforcement of the 1995 case Coleman v. Wilson, a federal class action suit filed against then-California Governor Pete Wilson, which resulted in federal oversight over CDCR’s mental health and medical treatment that continues under the jurisdiction of Judge Karlton.
An additional federal class action lawsuit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger was merged with the Coleman lawsuit and in 2009, California was ordered to reduce it’s prison population to 137% capacity, as it was determined that Constitutionally acceptable medical and mental health delivery was hindered by the beyond-capacity prison population, which was deemed an 8th Amendment violation. California in turn appealed the order to reduce it’s prison population and in 2011, in Brown v. Plata, the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce it’s prison population by 30,000 inmates. Governor Brown has an additional appeal of this order before U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson.
Governor Jerry Brown has gone on the record to claim that California has “one of the finest prison systems in the United States,” and no longer requires federal oversight. In a January 2013 press release, Governor Brown stated: “After decades of judicial intervention in our correctional system and the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars, the time has come to restore California’s rightful control of its prison system.” In February, CDCR announced the completion of a new mental health treatment building at the California Medical Facility, and declared that the facility “reinforces CDCR’s ongoing commitment to provide a constitutional level of mental health treatment in California’s prisons.”
Judge Karlton’s ruling, however, strongly rebukes these claims by Brown and CDCR, saying “based on defendants’ conduct to date, the court cannot rely on their averments of good faith as a basis for granting termination. There is overwhelming evidence in the record that much of defendants’ progress to date is due to the pressure of this and other litigation.”
A major factor in Judge Karlton’s ruling was the significant rate of suicides in the California prison system, which has previously been reported to be well above the national prison average.
“In summary, for over a decade a disproportionately high number of inmates have committed suicide in California’s prison system describable inadequacies in suicide prevention in the CDCR,” Judge Karlton writes,”Defendants have a constitutional obligation to take and adequately implement all reasonable steps to remedy those inadequacies. The evidence shows they have not yet done so. In addition, while defendants represent that they have fully implemented their suicide prevention program, they have not. An ongoing constitutional violation therefore remains.”
Judge Karlton cited the overuse of solitary confinement, particularly among individuals with severe mental health problems, as a continuing problem in the California prison system. The ruling states that such individuals “face substantial risk of serious harm, including exacerbation of mental illness and potential increase in suicide risk.”