For 18 years, a federal court has overseen the California state prison system's mental health care. This week, the state is making its case: conditions for mentally ill prisoners have improved enough for California to regain control of its facilities.
A good chunk of the state's evidence lies in declarations by state-hired experts based on their interviews of mentally ill inmates. These documents, filed in federal court, were intended to help show, as Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard stated after yesterday's hearing, that "California has among the best prison mental health systems in the nation."
The validity of those documents, though, are quite murky. Contrary to the legal requirements, the state held these interviews without the inmates' lawyers present.
"Assume that this is a profound ethical violation," Judge Lawrence K. Karlton told the state's attorneys.
The inmates' attorneys argued that the court should reject the expert declarations, erasing them from the state's case.
"They interviewed our mentally ill clients without our knowledge about the case and then they used the evidence (to buttress their claims that conditions in the prisons have improved)," Don Specter, head of the Prison Law Office, said the hearing, according to the Sacramento Bee. "They didn't really explain to the mentally ill clients what the purpose of the interviews were, so the inmates had no idea who they were speaking to, they had no idea for the reason."
The state's legal team countered mildly, claiming a court-appointed special master and one of the inmates' lawyers were notified about the interviews. Plus, Beard was sure to note, it's hard to hide things in prison. "When you go into a prison, there are no secrets in jail," he told reporters. "The very first prison that someone goes in, everyone knows they're there."
Karlton was critical of the state's actions-- "this is a serious matter, a very serious matter," he declared during the hearing.
When California Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney, who represented the state at the hearing, said that "We disagree that this was done in secret," Karlton responded with:
"I don't want to raise my voice. Assume that I disagree with you. Assume that this is a profound ethical violation."
The judge did not say whether or not he will toss out the declarations, but suggested, as the the Associated Press reported, that "he may still allow the state reports that form the core of the state's case because the issue is so important."
The controversy over the interviews threatens to undermine the legitimate progress California's prison system has made over the past two decades. As McKinney explained, the state has hired more than 1,700 health care professionals (from nurses to social workers to psychologists), spent more than $1 billion to fix up prison mental health facilities, and now drops more than $400 million every year on mental health care for inmates.
The court has until April 7 to make a decision on whether or not to end the federal oversight.