Judge Threatens to Fine California Prisons for Delayed Mental Health Treatment

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Prisons confine inmates during group therapy in metal cages, also known as therapeutic modules, at California State Prison in Sacramento. (Julie Small/KQED)

California prison officials could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines a day if they can't comply with a federal court order to eliminate delays in treatment for the most severely mentally ill inmates.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller this week threatened to fine prison officials to get them to meet the terms of a 1995 settlement of a decades-old class-action lawsuit. In 2009, state officials agreed that any prisoner with a life-threatening psychiatric crisis would get help within 24 hours. And inmates with severe mental illnesses would receive care within 30 days.

But in February, nearly a quarter of the 671 men and women eligible for acute care waited longer than 24 hours, according to a KQED analysis.

Mueller determined that there are enough "mental health crisis" beds in California. She’s giving prison officials until May 15 to comply with her order to eliminate the waitlist. Starting May 16, California prisons could be required to pay a fine of $1,000 a day for each inmate waiting for treatment.

Attorney Michael Bien, who sued to ensure mentally ill prisoners get the help they need, says that hundreds of people are waiting to get into inpatient programs at state hospitals and special psychiatric units within the prisons.


"Some people died while on the waitlist," he said. "We’re talking about a group of people where the doctors in the prison system agree that they need to get inpatient care, and the people running the inpatient program also agree the person qualifies. But instead of going, they’re on a waitlist."

At times prison officials have eliminated the backlog, but waits are growing again.

Prison officials are still evaluating the judge’s order. Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wrote in a statement that “mental health care delivery to inmates is very important to the department.”