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State plans death row mental health unit
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Responding to a federal court order, California prison officials plan to build a mental health unit for condemned inmates at San Quentin State Prison, according to court documents filed Tuesday.

The planned construction responds to a judge’s finding in December that mentally ill inmates on death row lack proper treatment.

The court-appointed special master who oversees prison mental health care said in a 72-page report that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation informed him earlier this month that it would create a 40-bed inpatient mental health program for inmates awaiting execution, to be known as the San Quentin Psychiatric Inpatient Program.

Prison and state finance officials could not immediately say how much the unit will cost to build or operate. Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the money would come from the department’s existing mental health budget.

Plans call for converting existing facilities on the fourth floor of the prison’s Medical Services Building, which was built under the authority of another court-appointed official who controls prison medical care.

A review of California’s 746 condemned inmates completed last month found that 14 needed inpatient care, while another 23 would be moved from other existing programs. All of those would be in line for admission to the new mental health unit once it is completed by Nov. 15.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento had left it up to state officials to work with the court-appointed special master, Matthew Lopes, to decide how to improve psychiatric care at the state’s oldest prison.

“We appreciate the Special Master’s commendation on what the department has achieved thus far. CDCR will continue to work with all parties involved to see this project to completion,” department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an email.

Attorneys representing inmates in the 23-year-old class action lawsuit had asked the judge to lift the ban on sending mentally ill condemned inmates to treatment facilities in other state facilities, but the department said that would create security risks.

“As long as they get the treatment that they need and they aren’t in the situation of inhumane suffering — as long as it works, that’s good,” said Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys representing inmates.