California reevaluates the brutal treatment of mentally ill inmates

By Isaiah Jurado

Source: 'Steven Duran holds pictures of Joseph Duran as he and ex-wife Elaine Duran talk about the death of their son at Mule Creek State Prison.' Sacramento Bee.

Source: ‘Steven Duran holds pictures of Joseph Duran as he and ex-wife Elaine Duran talk about the death of their son at Mule Creek State Prison.’ Sacramento Bee.

When a mentally ill person is given a life sentence for murder, they do not forfeit their rights as citizens under the Constitution. U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton agreed on Thursday April 10, when he condemned the force used by correctional officers against mentally ill inmates. After revealing testimonies and horrifying videos of inmates being doused with pepper spray, Judge Karlton called for a drastic revision of the use-of-force procedures by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. In light of this “unconstitutionally harsh” treatment, we must ask the question: why are the inmates being treated this way?

The treatment of inmates clearly differs from that of non-custodial citizens. As an inmate, regulations regarding treatment are governed by the Eight Amendment and fall under the “cruel and unusual punishment” standard. On the other hand, treatment of non custodial citizens is directed by the Second Amendment “objective reasonableness” standard; this means that the force used against inmates cannot be equated with the force used by officers outside the penitentiary due to the fact that inmates are in a controlled environment and under the care of the state. But does the Eighth Amendment rule out the use of pepper spray?

The parents of Steven Duran, a mentally ill inmate who died as a result of a pepper spray incident on Sept. 6, would say yes. Inmate attorneys have fought hard to eliminate the use of pepper spray and batons by correctional officers, but have had little success. Legislature has adamantly maintained the need of physical force for its officers. Situations like Duran’s reveal a need for officers to be cognizant of when physical force is necessary and when they are crossing the line.

It’s not the punishment that is an issue; it’s the training of the correctional officers. The use of pepper spray elevates a situation that may have been solved by other, less damaging, means.

Officers need to understand that they cannot exasperate the situation when dealing with mentally ill inmates. On the other hand, just because an inmate is mentally ill does not mean that they cannot pose a potential harm to themselves or others; what matters is the officer’s discretion when dealing with these inmates. Therefore there must be a balance of control and awareness of rights.

Removing physical force from an officer’s abilities can result in a loss of control over inmates. Yet, granting them free reign of force will only result in more incidents similar to Durand’s.

Correctional officers must rely on other means of problem resolution. California needs to implement greater training for officers so when a situation arises, officers will have better training and more tools to intervene nonviolently. Although the use of pepper spray may be the easiest method, it may not be the right one. The mentally ill are undoubtedly a minority in society and we cannot let their rights dissolve once they enter the correctional system — an individual regardless of their status cannot be denied the rights of the Constitution.

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