Suicides Spike in California Women’s Prison

Thursday, August 13, 2015

When Dr. Raymond F. Patterson published his 14th annual report (pdf) on California prison suicides in 2012, he regretfully wrote it would be his last: “This reviewer has repeated many of the same recommendations over and over again in his annual reports because, year after year, CDCR fails to implement these recommendations.” (italic is Patterson’s)

Last week, Don Thompson of the Associated Press reported that four women inmates killed themselves at San Bernardino County’s California Institution for Women (CIW)  during the past 18 months. There was only one suicide at the prison between 1999 and 2012, one each in 2001, 2006 and 2012.

The spike brought the prison suicide rate to eight times the national average and five times that of California’s horrendous state prison system for men and women, according to AP. That’s unusual, because men commit suicide in prison far more often than men. The state prison system erupted with 32 suicides in 2012.

All four of the women were receiving treatment for mental health at the times of their death. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Dana Simas, told AP that an investigation of the four deaths did not find a common factor. “They could not identify one single underlying issue that indicated that CDCR had any deficiencies in mental health treatment, in lapses in supervision” although there were “many variables in each individual’s case.”

They could start with overcrowding. CIW is designed to house 1,080 women but has 1,905 at last count. A report in 2013 by medical experts said a “majority of problems” at the prison “are attributable to overcrowding, insufficient health-care staffing, and inadequate bed space.”

Suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes wrote a report in 2011 detailing how California’s suicide watch units made things worse. He described poorly-lit, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor where suicidal inmates were held for days. That was not the report the public initially saw.

Hayes edited out a lot of the bad stuff, at the direction of the CDCR, for presentation to a court-appointed monitor and lawyers for prisoners. Court filings in 2013 revealed the CDCR suppression.

Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Suicide Spike Boosts Oversight of California Women's Prison (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Expert Hired to Help Lower Suicide Rate in State Prisons Gives Up (by Julie Small, KPCC)

California Prison Conditions Driving Prisoners to Suicide (by Sal Rodriguez, Solitary Watch)

California Suppressed Consultant's Report on Inmate Suicides (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

California Turns to Private Prison to Address Overcrowding and Medical Care (by Victoria Law, Truthout)

Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2012 (U.S. Department of Justice) (pdf)

Report on Suicides Completed in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation January 1, 2012–June 30, 2012 (by Dr. Raymond F. Patterson) (pdf)

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