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United States: mental health crisis in California’s lock-ups worsens with Covid-19

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been challenged regarding care for its mentally ill prisoners for decades.

Rather than improve under a class action lawsuit dating back to 1990 (now Plata v. Newsom) and seeking constitutionally acceptable mental health care for prisoners, conditions continue to slide, exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Mental health problems are especially egregious at CDCR’s California Institute for Women (CIW) in Chino. This is a 1,398-bed prison, currently operating at a slight overcapacity with 1,500 prisoners. Although females currently make up only 4 percent of CDCR’s population, they represent a disproportionate 11 percent of the suicide rate.

Prior to COVID-19, a group of CIW prisoners receiving mental health treatment had dayroom access 23 hours a day. By mid-March, the women found themselves confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes longer. They stated that prison staff told them nothing about lockdown procedures, when they would be allowed recreation and phone calls to family members or even when they would be allowed to shower.

On April 6, 2020 three major events occurred at CIW. Staff there began wearing masks, the prison received its first positive result on a COVID-19 test and housing wings were quarantined as a result. No information about or reasons for these measures were shared with the prisoners.

Sudden deviations from routine operations are unsettling for prisoners not experiencing mental health problems. They can be, and frequently are, terrifying for prisoners suffering from mental illness. Newly isolated mental health patients responded with screaming and banging on doors for many hours before prison staff explained that the changes to their routines and circumstances were because of COVID-19.**

Michael Bien is the lead attorney in the ongoing 30-year-old mental health class action lawsuit against CDCR. He acknowledged that because of COVID-19, “rather than treat(ing) their mental health,” the pandemic has led the prison health care industry “to basically just (try) to keep people alive.”

As onerous as isolation is to a mentally healthy prisoner, it is exponentially worse for someone suffering mental illness. Once a prisoner becomes symptomatic with or tests positive for COVID-19 and remains asymptomatic, isolation is the next step. Once the infected person is removed from the housing area, the individual remains on medical restriction for 14 to 30 days.

Many CIW residents are refusing COVID-19 tests to avoid the specter of isolation. “People aren’t scared of COVID-19,” stated prisoner April Harris in a communique to The Washington Post. “They are scared of the treatment of isolation,” she added.

Suicide attempts appeared nearly immediately after the first COVID-19 case at CIW. The first was not successful. Another attempt followed soon after. During May 2020, a transgender man was isolated with COVID-19. He asked to see a mental health care provider. He tried to slit his wrist, then set his room on fire.

Counselor Bien with co-counsel are pushing the state through their lawsuit to reduce CDCR’s mentally ill prisoner population with an overall prisoner reduction.

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