by Malcolm Macdonald, August 7, 2013
This week marks the anniversary of the start of Operation Prairie, a series of battles fought between U.S. Marines and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the northern provinces of what was then South Vietnam during 1966. One of the Marines who fought in those battles was twenty-three year-old Sergeant Ralph Coleman, who helped evacuate five injured members of his squad while under intense enemy fire. Coleman was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroism. Like many Leathernecks, he responded to the medal of valor by saying, “I was just doing my job, what I had been trained to do in the Marines.”
Also, like many a Vietnam Vet, Coleman didn’t gain recognition for his deeds until twenty-two years after they were performed. The Bronze Star was awarded to Coleman in 1988 at San Quentin State Prison. Coleman was incarcerated there for shooting and killing his wife, son and niece ten years before.
At his murder trial Coleman was found legally responsible for his actions, but diagnosed as mentally ill. He received a life sentence for his crimes. In 1989 he was transferred to the then new maximum security facility at Pelican Bay, near Crescent City, where the mental health staff for three thousand, five hundred prisoners consisted of one person. Within two years of Pelican Bay’s opening, hundreds of lawsuits were filed claiming violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel or unusual punishment. Many of the lawsuits complained about conditions in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) where some of the inmates were so psychotic their psychiatric needs should have been monitored hourly. Other complaints stemmed from the treatment of dozens of others in the Violence Control Unit (VCU) where clothing sometimes consisted of paper gowns, inmates were denied cups to drink from, and were occasionally cuffed or hogtied so they had to slurp their food from a plate.
Coleman filed suit on his own behalf then contacted Donald Specter at the non-profit Prison Law Office. Through Specter’s work and the ruling of United States Magistrate Judge John Moulds, Coleman’s case became a class action suit. By the 21st Century Coleman’s case was rolled together with that of Marciano Plata, a prisoner injured at Soledad State Prison. The Plata Case eventually wended its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where a 5-4 decision stated that California’s State Prisons were indeed in violation of the Eighth Amendment due to dramatic overcrowding (In 1980 the state prisons housed 24,000 inmates. By 2006 that total reached 173,000.).
The end result: the overcrowded state prisons had to redistribute prisoners. That is why Assembly Bill 109 was passed in April, 2011. AB 109 allows certain felons to be housed in county jails rather than state prisons in a program it terms “Realignment.”
A study just released by Stanford Law School found that “counties that had existing alternatives to incarceration, treatment programs, and data collection and evaluation processes firmly in place seemed more confident that they could successfully implement Realignment.”
Given that the Realignment program stemmed from an inmate with mental health issues it is interesting that California’s legislative solution seems to be based on the purely mathematical equation of reducing overcrowding. In Mendocino County, if a person is in a mental health crisis situation, there is often nowhere for that citizen to go except to the county jail because Mendocino County has no early intervention crisis care. Once in the county jail, it is seemingly the standard practice of Mendocino County to deprive that same person in crisis of all psychiatric medications for two full weeks.