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Judge Mulls California Inmate Isolation Practices

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File photo of a judge's gavel. (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of a judge’s gavel. (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge was expected to wrap up hearings Thursday on the last of four legal challenges to the way California treats mentally ill inmates, months after he rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to end court oversight of prison mental health programs.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento planned to hear closing arguments over whether prolonged solitary confinement violates the rights of the mentally ill.

He already has ruled against the Brown administration on two other fronts: He decided that mentally ill inmates on death row lack proper care and that the Department of State Hospitals also provides substandard treatment to mentally ill prisoners.

He has not yet ruled on another related issue, whether prison guards use too much force on mentally ill inmates. That question focused in large part on the guards’ use of large amounts of pepper spray.

The hearing is the latest development in a 23-year-old lawsuit that helped lead to sweeping changes in the state prison system, including a sharp reduction in overcrowding.

Karlton and two other federal judges, with backing from the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that reducing the prison population is necessary to improve inmate medical and mental health treatment.

The crowding debate overlapped into Karlton’s hearing on the segregation of mentally ill inmates, after the judge demanded that the administration limit the time that some troubled inmates spend in isolation.

Once the administration complied, Karlton and the other judges last week gave the state until April to meet a court-ordered population cap, extending what once was a year-end deadline.

Attorneys representing inmates said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sometimes keeps mentally ill inmates in segregation because they lack space in treatment facilities. To satisfy the judge, the state issued a new policy earlier this month setting a 30-day limit on housing severely mentally ill prisoners in isolation units if they have not violated prison rules. The limit is 60 days for those with mental illnesses deemed less severe.

Michael Bien, an attorney representing inmates, said keeping mentally ill inmates in isolation for any reason does more harm than good.

Lawyers for the state said corrections officials provide proper care and treatment within the isolation units, transferring inmates to other facilities if they need more intensive care.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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