Ninth Circuit Orders California to Step Up on Inmate Mental Health Care

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California once again took heat for its embattled prison system after a Ninth Circuit panel on Wednesday ordered the state to comply with longstanding rules requiring immediate emergency care for mentally disabled inmates.

The state claims total compliance with a 2006 court-ordered timeframe requiring hospitalization within 24 hours for inmates undergoing a mental crisis is “impossible.” California’s lawyers contend the policy goes above and beyond the Eight Amendment and therefore prisons shouldn’t be expected to comply with the timeframe 100 percent of the time.

Attorneys for the class of prisoners painted a brutal picture of inmate suffering for the panel during oral arguments this month.

“There were people strapped to gurneys for three days who were suicidal, who urinated all over themselves because they were waiting for crisis care. There were people not observed – as they were required to be by defendants’ policies – who killed themselves,” said class counsel Lisa Ells, describing an expert’s report on California prisons to the panel on Nov. 13.

The class also presented a recent state audit that described suicide rates at California prisons as “sky-high” and another report that found 40 percent of the prisons reviewed were not compliant with suicide prevention policies.

The prison descriptions and audits held weight with the panel, which ruled against the state just two weeks after oral arguments.

“In sum, the district court correctly held that, except in certain classes of cases in which there is good reason for delay, waits for mental health crisis beds longer than 24 hours violate the Eighth Amendment,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the three-judge panel in an unpublished ruling.

Over the last several decades, the federal courts have routinely forced the state to update its lacking inmate health care system. Since 2006, a federal receiver has been in control of California’s inmate medical system, a lasting black eye for a state with 34 facilities and over 100,000 inmates.

The complaint at issue was filed in 1990 in Sacramento federal court by prisoner Ralph Coleman on behalf of a class of prisoners who claimed they were denied timely psychiatric care. California has over 38,000 inmates with mental health conditions, more than many states’ entire prison population.

In 2006, the court formally approved a revised plan requiring prisoners in psychiatric crisis be hospitalized within 24 hours. In addition, transfers to acute inpatient care must be completed within 10 days of a clinician’s referral, and to longer-term inpatient care within 30 days.

In March 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller found the delays resulted in patients being held in settings unequipped to provide the emergency care required to stabilize them, according to the class. Mueller eventually ordered the state to attain 100 percent compliance with transfer timeframes and the state appealed her order to the Ninth Circuit.

The state says Mueller’s order will only invite more federal oversight.

“[The district court’s order] virtually guarantees perpetual federal court oversight of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s crisis-bed program,” the state claimed in its Ninth Circuit opening brief.

The panel also dismissed for lack of jurisdiction the state’s appeal regarding the 10/30-day rule regarding inpatient transfers.

Vicky Waters, corrections department press secretary, said the department is still “evaluating the court’s ruling” while California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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