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California to shift mentally ill inmates out of solitary confinement

By Victoria Cavaliere

(Reuters) - California will move mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement to special isolation units as part of a series of new policies outlined by corrections officials Friday to improve treatment for inmates with psychiatric illnesses.

The policy initiatives were filed in compliance with an April 10 ruling by a U.S. federal judge who found the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had violated the rights of mentally ill inmates by subjecting them to excessive punishment.

In 2013, about 28 percent of California's overcrowded prison population was diagnosed with some sort of mental illness, according to state and federal statistics.

Complying with the federal order to amend how it deals with these inmates, the state earlier this month outlined changes to curb the use of force after video footage showed mentally ill prisoners screaming as guards doused them in pepper spray.

Corrections officials are "focused on ensuring a strong collaborative environment between mental health and custody staff ... to ensure mental health input is fully considered in programming and housing decisions," Friday's filing said.

The new policies will create specialty units, for both short and long-term stays, for about 2,500 mentally ill inmates who are removed from the general population for disciplinary reasons.

Corrections officials will also undertake a case-by-case review of inmates with lengthy segregation in an attempt to decrease their time in solitary confinement.

The new protocol includes increased recreation, access to mental health practitioners and risk assessment to prevent conditions that could exacerbate mental illness or the risk of suicide.

"We are confident this is going to be real,” attorney Michael Bien told the New York Times.

Bien, who has taken part in a lawsuit against the state over its treatment of mentally ill prisoners, said he believed there could be a sea change in the corrections department.

“I think they have a new philosophy that they believe in and they are going to do it,” he told the newspaper.

The series of changes were accepted by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton and expected to be implemented on a rolling basis.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Paul Tait)

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