State prisons changing pepper spray rules

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Jail CellsSACRAMENTO — Facing federal scrutiny of the way it uses force to subdue mentally ill prisoners, the California corrections department is working on new rules to curb some of those practices.

In testimony Wednesday before a federal judge, the state official in charge of adult prisons said he sought the changes in part because of videotapes showing half a dozen inmates — some naked and screaming for help — being repeatedly sprayed with large amounts of pepper spray.

Those tapes “are honestly one of the reasons we will be revising our policy to provide additional guidelines,” said Michael Stainer, deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Stainer said the new rules would limit the amount of pepper spray guards may use and ban canisters of the substance meant for crowd control in a small cell.

“I would love to have this policy in practice by the end of the year,” Stainer told The Times.

He declined to provide a working copy of the new rules.

The announcement coincides with a ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton requiring the state to produce public copies of the videotapes, which show six mentally ill prisoners in four state prisons being pepper sprayed after refusing to be handcuffed for removal from their cells. The tapes have been played in federal court but kept under seal, as lawyers for California prisoners have sought curtailment of pepper spray use on the mentally ill.

In episodes that last as long as half an hour, guards are seen repeatedly pepper spraying the prisoners, sometimes at close range. In some of those cases, it appears the screaming prisoners do not understand repeated orders.

On Wednesday, Karlton questioned how to balance the needs of a system accustomed to punishing prisoners who disobey orders, and “whether any penalty is appropriate when somebody is nuts.” He said that any order might be too broad, because 1 in 3 prisoners in California is categorized as mentally ill, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia.

Though experts testifying on behalf of prisoners said the inmates in the videotapes sometimes appeared terrified and in pain, the state’s witnesses have argued that the chemical in pepper spray causes no lasting physical or psychological harm, and is preferable to risking injury by entering a prisoner’s cell. They contend the tapes depict extreme cases, and even then, the steps taken complied with prison rules.

Dr. John Lindgren, California’s senior prison psychiatrist, testified Tuesday that he believed psychotic prisoners would have no memory of the incidents and that they “have a higher than average threshold for pain or noxious stimuli.” Another prison psychiatrist called the spray “an irritant.”


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