Home » Blogs » No Family Madder » California: The Beatings (of Mentally Ill) Will Continue Until Morale Improves

California: The Beatings (of Mentally Ill) Will Continue Until Morale Improves

California Pepper SprayWhatever cruel and inhuman may be, much like porn, we all know it when we see it.

Take this horrifying video of a mentally disabled man being pepper sprayed repeatedly by prison guards for the heinous crime of not taking his meds. It’s so shocking that California state corrections officials were immediately moved to announce a review of the practice to see if they can—get this!—pepper spray the mentally ill man just a tad bit less.

I am not making this up. Their response is not to stop gassing the mentally ill, but to  see if they can’t use a little less gas in dousing some 30,000 mentally ill prisoners regularly caged naked in the hole, as solitary confinement is known, in California’s vast prison industrial complex–and, by default, its largest collective mental institution.

In this disturbing tape, you can see that this man clearly does not comprehend the commands of the very large prison guards in scary masks and riot gear who spray poison gas through his food slot, burning his eyes and traumatizing him.

Their solution? Gas the guy even more.

“We’ll stop the burning when you cuff up,” one guard taunts repeatedly.

Help, help . . . I can’t breathe . . . help

“I can’t breathe . . . . . . help, help, help .  . .I just wanna go home,” the man pleads.

Clearly embarrassed by the video, an official statement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation assures us that officials are now “revising the use of force policies to limit the duration of pepper-spray applications, the total number of applications and the minimum waiting period between applications in non-emergency situations.”

So there you have it. In its infinite compassion, California might ease up–not eliminate–the poision gas practice. They’re going to study whether to turn down the cruelty dial in the name of correcting and rehabilitating this man, of course, along with tens of thousands of mentally ill men and women locked up in the Golden State.

Or, at least, they’ll consider it, according to Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the CDCR, sounding not unlike a politician promising to beat his wife less.

It might be funny if it weren’t so sick–if it were, say, a story concocted by the satirical Onion or Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the most absurdly twisted forms of torture this side of the Spanish Inquisition.

Unfortunately, it’s a straight news item on a half a dozen gruesome videotapes released under a Sacramento court order on Thursday showing  correctional officers  spraying mentally ill prisoners like so many insects.

And without irony the answer comes back that the beatings will continue until morale improves, as the old saw goes. Only with a bit more downtime between each beating, evidently. How Christian.

Outcry From Psychiatry?

I caught the first of the tapes last night after a beautiful Indian summer day spent biking all over town following the rolling Red Sox World Series victory rally.  Immediately it made me wretch.

Only on the third go round was I able to view it without the volume down this morning. I couldn’t handle hearing the bearded psychotic naked man yelping in terror as guards grunt, promising to stop the burn when he “cuffs up.”

Oddly, I found myself navigating between reviewing the video and listening to an early Sunday morning National Public Radio show that happened to be extolling the virtues of Buddhist compassion. The contrast between what I was seeing on my computer screen and what I was hearing on this public radio station could not have been greater.

As I watched our  man writhing on screen–and listened to American Buddhists Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzburg discussing metta, a Pali word from thousands of years ago that means loving kindness, on the Krista Tippet show–I couldn’t help but wonder about all the good California Buddhists whose tax dollars finance this punishment pornography. I thought they were supposed to be enlightened out there.

Equally, I wondered where all the good Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians were in the face of state-sponsored evil? Where are all the good Roman Catholics and the new Pope on this?

Punishing the Mentally Ill for Being Ill

Strangest of all, in the comment section of the Los Angeles Times piece, Americans normal in any other way, apparently, were able to defend the practice.   I guess for some people there’s just no taking to the hurt too far.

And what of Dr. Ernest Wagner, the prison psychiatrist who testified to the court that the prisoner had lost touch with reality and needed emergency medication. If there’s not a more humane way of going about it, then who’s lost touch with reality here?

Don’t prison psychiatrists pledge in their Hippocratic Oath to do no harm? Wagner is not alone. Psychiatrists across the country are paid to okay such abuse. Where is the American Psychiatric Association on this?

For that matter, where are the animal rights activitists along with the human rights activits? Because this man is treated worse than an animal at the zoo.

Lawyers representing some 30,000 mentally ill California inmates managed to persuade U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, who’s holding hearings on the practice, to have the tapes released to the public.

That’s a good start, but Karlton should put a stop to this barbarism altogether.

“The mentally ill are being punished for their mental illness,” Jeffrey Bornstein, a San Francisco attorney representing inmates, told Karlton, arguing it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

As if, like pornography, we can’t all see that.

California: The Beatings (of Mentally Ill) Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Patrick Tracey

PEN winning author of Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia (Random House/Bantam Dell). London correspondent in early 2000s, Washington City Paper contributing writer throughout 1990s. More recently writing for Salon and now blogging here.

9 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Tracey, P. (2013). California: The Beatings (of Mentally Ill) Will Continue Until Morale Improves. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Nov 2013
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.