Videos of half a dozen mentally ill prisoners being heavily pepper-sprayed -- even while naked and screaming for help -- have forced change in California's prison policy.
The California official in charge of adult prisons said Wednesday he sought the changes in part because of the disturbing videos, the Los Angeles Times reports. The videotapes are being used as evidence in a lawsuit filed by prisoners' lawyers when asking a federal judge to require psychiatric hospitalization for the most mentally ill prisoners on death row and to ban the use of pepper spray on mentally ill inmates. The court hearings surrounding the lawsuit began at the start of October.
The state said in court documents that guards regularly use canisters of pepper spray the size of a fire extinguisher on inmates when a much smaller quantity could be used, the Associated Press reports.
The new rules will "limit the duration of pepper spray applications, the total applications and the minimum waiting period between applications," Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Communications California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said to The Huffington Post. The new rules may also ban the use of the large pepper spray canisters -- designed for crowd control -- on prisoners in small cells, she said.
The rules are still being written and would not apply to emergency situations. The department expects the new rules to go into effect by the end of the year.
However, witnesses for the state have argued that pepper spray does not cause any lasting harm and that most prisoners would have no memory of the incidents, UPI reports.
"What you don't see on the videos is the hours and hours spent consulting with the inmate before a cell extraction is ordered," Hoffman said to HuffPost. "Our teams spend literally three to five hours speaking with the inmates, allowing them time to cool off, speaking with them again -- all in an attempt to get the inmate to voluntarily come out of their cell for treatment etc. It's only after that very lengthy process that an extraction is ordered and the video camera starts rolling."
The state began its defense Tuesday of how it treats mentally ill inmates by having a prison psychiatrist respond to a video played by the prosecuting lawyers, the Sacramento Bee reports.
The video showed a naked, mentally ill prisoner being doused with pepper spray, forcibly removed from his cell, then strapped to a gurney and injected with anti-psychotic medication. The psychiatrist said he was there during the incident and that the pepper spraying was a last resort, necessary to save the life of the inmate, who refused to come out of his cell or take his medication for days.
The new limits on pepper spraying come as the federal judge overseeing the case ordered corrections officials to publicly release the pepper spraying videos, the Associated Press reports.
Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing mentally ill inmates, praised the new pepper spraying rules but said they don’t go far enough, CBS reports.
“It’s a big step, and I think that it’s a significant admission that the department needed to reform,” he said.