California prison officials said Friday they are changing state policy so mentally ill inmates who act out can get counseling instead of being automatically sent to isolation cells or kept in prison longer.
It is the latest in a series of policy shifts after a federal judge ruled a year ago that the state's treatment of mentally ill inmates violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, in part because their illness isn't taken into account when they are disciplined.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton acted after the release of videos made by correctional officers that showed guards pumping pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some of them screaming and delirious.
The tactics were used on inmates who refused to take medication, be handcuffed or leave their cells.
The new policy was filed Friday in federal court in Sacramento.
"This is a very significant reform of the disciplinary process for prisoners with mental illness," said Michael Bien, an attorney representing mentally ill inmates in the long-running lawsuit. "What's the point of punishing someone who's psychotic?"
The change is good for inmates and taxpayers, Bien said, because keeping inmates in disciplinary segregation is expensive and keeps them in prison longer by taking away early release credits at a time when the state is under a federal court order to reduce the inmate population.