State reconsiders restrictions at new California death-row unit for mentally ill inmates

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SACRAMENTO, California — A practice of withholding calls and visits at a new psychiatric unit on death row at San Quentin State Prison can discourage inmates from seeking the treatment they need, a court-appointed overseer said this week.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is re-examining its policy of automatically blocking family contacts for newly admitted patients as a result, department spokeswoman Dana Simas said Friday.

The state opened the 39-bed unit in October in response to a federal judge's ruling a year ago that condemned a lack of proper mental health treatment for inmates.

Newly arriving patients are not permitted family visits, telephone calls and other privileges that they had on death row, special master Matthew Lopes said in a progress report Tuesday. The privileges are gradually restored as incentives while the patients undergo treatment.

While the psychiatric program otherwise is generally going very well, that policy often doesn't work and can be counterproductive because it punishes inmates who seek treatment for their mental illness, he said.

Lopes said withholding privileges promotes "a system of institutionalized disincentive to treatment," noting that several patients fought being placed in the unit.

"CDCR is committed to providing quality health care to all inmates and we are pleased that the Special Master found the new San Quentin Psychiatric Inpatient Program is functioning at such a high and effective level," Simas said in an email.

Attorney Michael Bien, who sued on behalf of inmates to force the state to improve treatment, agreed with the overseer's criticism. Death row inmates already have severely limited contact with the outside world, and the encouragement of family members can be crucial to helping restore their mental health, he said.

"Everybody agrees that the people in there are very, very sick and need treatment," Bien said. "But they can't be treated with punishment."

The same problem is built into the state's $1 billion medical and mental health treatment complex that opened in 2013 in Stockton, Bien said.

Exercise yards in the Stockton mental health units are so tiny and restrictive that they look more like they belong at maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison, home of the state's toughest isolation unit, he said. Patients in both the Stockton and San Quentin facilities also are often restrained in specially made chairs or have their movements restricted in other ways while they are in group therapy or undergoing counseling.

"We don't want programs to be so unpleasant and so segregation-like that patients see them as punishment rather than treatment," Bien said.

Mental health programs at the Stockton prison are run by the Department of State Hospitals. Department spokesman Ken Paglia said he could not immediately comment.

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