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Cali Judge Sends Clear Message Regarding Prisoner Mental Health

— July 3, 2024

Judge Mueller fines California $112M for understaffing mental health professionals in the state’s prisons.

A Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller in California, appointed by former President George W. Bush (R), recently ordered top state prison officials in civil contempt for failing to hire enough mental health professionals to treat the tens of thousands of incarcerated people suffering from serious mental disorders. She also imposed a $112 million fine on the state to further drive home her clear message that she’s had enough of its lack of response to previous efforts to bring the system into compliance.

Judge Mueller expressed her frustrations with California’s ongoing failure to comply with court orders aimed at addressing understaffing of mental health professionals in state prisons, which have led to officials accumulating fines for the past 90 days instead of tackling the issue head on. She made clear, “The sanctions imposed here are necessary to sharpen that focus and magnify defendants’ sense of urgency to finally achieve a lasting remedy for chronic mental health understaffing in the state’s prison system.” Officials have one month to pay off the balance.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration responded strongly against the ruling with Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a spokesperson for Newsom, calling the ruling “deeply flawed” and stating it didn’t take into consideration efforts the state has made thus far to attempt to staff qualified mental health professionals amid shortages.

Cali Judge Sends Clear Message Regarding Prisoner Mental Health
Photo by ahmet öktem from Pexels

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson Terri Hardy claimed further that prisoners currently have access to services that are “often better” than those outside of prison walls, which he stated was a reflection the state’s “extraordinary steps to expand access to mental health care.”

However, Ernest Galvan, an attorney representing the prisoners, criticized the wait, saying, “It’s very unfortunate that the state officials have allowed this situation to get so bad and to stay so bad for so long.”

According to data from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), of the currently more than 100,000 prisoners in California, 34,000 have several mental health issues, including conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. A class-action lawsuit filed over the treatment of prisoners with mental illness was first filed more than three decades ago, 1990. The case, filed as Coleman v. Brown, alleged the prison system was in violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights to adequate medical care. A 10 percent vacancy limit was put into place in 2002, and this continues to be used as a baseline to determine whether prisons are following state law.

Adding to the judge’s frustration, in 2017, she had imposed fines for delays in transferring prisoners to state mental health facilities, and over $4.2 million in fines have yet to be collected from that ruling. In April 2023, she also began assessing $1,000-a-day fines for the state’s failure to roll out court-ordered suicide prevention measures.

The decision to fine California $112 million despite the state’s current budget deficit sends a clear message that the court will not continue to tolerate the ongoing disregard for standard expectations regarding mental health resources for those who are incarcerated. It also highlights the criticalness of addressing severe mental illness for all in the state.


Federal judge finds California in contempt over prison mental health staffing

Coleman v. Brown: Recent Developments in Mental Health Staffing, Crisis Transfers and Population Challenges

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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