SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge is expected to decide this week whether the public has a right to see videos showing prison guards tossing chemical grenades and pumping pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some of them screaming and delirious.
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration wants the videos, which were made by correctional officers, kept from public view. Administration attorneys argue they could provide a misleading view of events and violate the privacy of both inmates and guards. If they are shown at all, the administration wants U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton to view them in secret, in his own chambers.
The videos are part of a long-running legal case that has required the state to significantly improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates, although attorneys representing prisoners say the system still leads to too many suicides and inadequate care.
One shows a Corcoran State Prison inmate being sprayed repeatedly in his cell in a mental health crisis unit last year because he refused to take his psychiatric medication, according to court documents.
He "was not lucid or coherent enough" to follow guards' orders that he allow himself to be handcuffed as he screamed in pain from the pepper spray, according to a sworn declaration filed with the court by Eldon Vail, an expert witness hired by the inmates' attorneys who was allowed to view the videos and related documentation. The guards then sprayed him again at close range.
By the time guards finally entered the cell, it was so slick with pepper spray that they and the inmate wound up in a pile sliding across the floor, according to Vail, the former director of the Washington state prison system.
"This is what they do to real people with public money," said Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing inmates' welfare in. He wants the videos shown in open court.
The evidentiary hearing scheduled to start Thursday challenges the prison system's discipline of mentally ill inmates and whether inmates on death row at San Quentin State Prison receive adequate mental health treatment. A separate federal court case against the state focuses on general medical treatment of inmates. The cases have led federal judges to find that overcrowding is the main source of inadequate care, forcing the state to greatly reduce its prison population.
In the mental health case, the videos are described in court documents as showing guards repeatedly using pepper spray on inmates who suffer from asthma after prison supervisors overruled prohibitions against using chemicals in such cases. One of the asthmatic inmates walked with a cane; his offense was refusing to leave a holding cage.
Another Corcoran inmate was sprayed five times in the space of a few minutes for refusing to leave his cell, leaving him "completely delirious" on the floor, according to Vail's declaration.
The state's own expert witness, Steven Martin, a corrections consultant with 40 years' experience as a guard, prison administrator and court monitor, said in sworn testimony that guards use pepper spray far too often and much too heavily because they lack training and because prison policies encourage its use.
But the experts disagree on whether the heavy use of pepper spray is enough to constitute unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
The hearing evolved from Karlton's decision in April to reject the governor's bid to end court oversight of prison mental health treatment. In the course of contesting that move, attorneys representing inmates' welfare said they discovered even more problems.
In July, Karlton increased his oversight of the troubled prison system after finding that the Department of State Hospitals shares the blame with corrections officials for providing poor care to mentally ill inmates, contributing to the deaths in recent months of two inmates at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
In November, he will begin another hearing to consider whether mentally ill inmates are improperly housed in segregation units where they lack proper care. Coincidently, inmates earlier this month ended a 60-day hunger strike protesting the prison system's isolation policies for gang leaders.
Expert witnesses for the state and for inmates agree that California prison guards are routinely equipped with weapons "unmatched by any other prison system in the country," according to court filings.
The state's expert said he saw more pepper spray in a single California guard tower "than most prisons have for their entire prison."
"I was stunned at the arsenal they had," Martin, the state's expert witness, said in a deposition. He was shocked to see that a typical guard is equipped with a collapsible metal baton, a can of pepper spray large enough to control riots and two chemical grenades.
Most prison systems don't need that level of weaponry to control their inmates, he said. Moreover, he said guards routinely use canisters of pepper spray the size of a fire extinguisher on unarmed inmates when a much smaller quantity would have accomplished the same purpose.
"We're talking about grams, you know, ounces as opposed to entire canisters," he said.