California places mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement due to lack of treatment beds

California Institute for Men's Administrative Segregation Unit (Cypress Hall) Housing Census Board – Prisoners in Administrative Segregation Due to “LOB” (“Lack of Bed”) Are Marked with Purple or Pink Cards. SOURCE: Coleman v. Brown declaration of Dr. Craig Haney for the plaintiffs.

Inmates suffering from mental health problems continue to be held in solitary confinement – or “administration segregation” or “ad seg” units – due to lack of appropriate treatment beds even after Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California’s prison emergency.

Seeking to terminate a federal court’s oversight of California’s prison mental health system, Brown boasted that most people in prison “get far better care for mental health problems…than they’ll get once they’re released.”

But during the Coleman v. Brown hearing on March 27, Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, called attention to the state’s practice of housing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement for “an unlimited amount of time.”

Studies have shown that prolonged isolation can worsen the mental state of inmates. In fact, the suicide rates for inmates held in segregation are between “6 and 9 times greater than the already high…systemwide suicide rate” in California prisons.

The prisoners’ court filings cited a former suicide-prevention consultant for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who observed that mentally ill inmates held in segregation are “being treated as if they were disciplinary inmates” and, thus, subjected to severe restrictions in the amount of time they’re allowed outside of their cell and the amount of personal items they could possess. In addition, Bien noted, mentally ill inmates even strip searched every they go outside to exercise.

“This could also be one reason why there’s a disproportionate number of suicides in the Ad-Seg unit, because inmates in these units were very frustrated, and their mental health was deteriorating, and their stress level was increasing because they’re there for reasons other than discipline, and yet they’re being treated as if they were disciplinary inmates and being locked down up to 24 hours a day and not being given yard [time] and normal property,” explained Lindsay Hayes, the former suicide-prevention consultant for CDCR.

Bien pointed out that even the state-hired experts conceded that “segregation is not a particularly therapeutic environment to house inmates with serious mental disorders, even when [enhanced outpatient program] level of care is provided.”

But despite these concerns, Bien says the state is continuing the ‘psych-and-return’ practice in which mentally ill prisoners are returned to solitary confinement immediately after they are discharged from a mental crisis bed or a state mental hospital.

Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney didn’t dispute Bien’s assertions; he simply dismissed them as a “philosophical disagreement and not a legal issue.”

“The law is clear that inmates may be housed in segregated units as long as [they are] receiving adequate treatment,” McKinney told the court.

Learn More: