In California Prisons, Reducing Inmate Suicides a Rare Success

By Don Thompson, Associated Press Writer
AP News
Sunday, May 27, 2007


FOLSOM, Calif. (AP) – Every 30 minutes, day and night, guards walk the tiers of the isolation unit at California State Prison, Sacramento, checking inmates to make sure they don’t kill themselves.

The guards have been doing so since October, when the prison system instituted a series of reforms to cut the high rate of inmate suicides. The steps were prompted by a federal judge’s finding that a disproportionate number of suicides occurred in the isolation cells used to segregate inmates for disciplinary or other reasons.

The measures, which include screening inmates for potential suicidal tendencies and training guards how to intervene, appear to be making a difference.

Last year, a record 43 inmates killed themselves in California prisons. California’s rate of 25.5 deaths per 100,000 inmates is nearly double the nationwide prison suicide rate of 14 per 100,000, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly half those deaths were in California’s isolation units.

Through Friday, 13 inmates had committed suicide, compared with 19 during the same period a year ago. Three were in the segregation units, down from seven in those cells at the same time last year.

The reduction in suicides so far this year marks a rare hint of success for a prison system beset by multiple crises and one that has seen many of its operations placed under the authority of federal courts.

Three years ago, nearly 70 percent of California’s inmate suicides were in segregation units, triggering intervention by a federal judge and the prevention efforts that began last fall.

Guards have reported preventing more than 60 suicides in segregation cells so far this year. They represent a disproportionate share of the more than 170 suicides attempted during the past five months in the state’s 33 adult prisons.

“They’ve approached several guys who have nooses around their necks and they’ve intervened. They’ve saved them,” said Correctional Capt. Gene Nies, who oversees the Folsom prison’s segregation unit. “They know these guys. They start to recognize the signs. They know to check on them more frequently.”

Sometimes, the guards are too late. On April 25, one of Nies’ officers found 30-year-old Alberto Gomez hanging from a noose made of a bed sheet. Resuscitation efforts failed.


John Garfield can relate to the sense of despair that leads inmates to consider taking their own lives.

Now 62, Garfield was freed from the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo in April after serving nearly 30 years for conspiracy to commit murder.

He recalls friends who took their own lives, often after receiving bad news or being cut off from their families. One gave up after his wife divorced him and as he was about to be moved to a new cell, Garfield said.

“That was what broke the dam open,” Garfield said in a telephone interview from his home in Rialto, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. “He just said the hell with it. He had every drug you can think of. He did it on purpose, and off he went.”

Garfield said he periodically became depressed as his parents and other relatives died while he served his sentence.

“That ate me up,” he said. “I used to send out 80 or 90 Christmas cards. Now I’m down to 20. Each time something like that happens, it puts another spike in a guy.”

Michael Keating, the special master overseeing treatment of the system’s estimated 30,000 mentally ill inmates, said prison officials have been making progress in their efforts to prevent inmate suicides. In a report this month to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, he said the progress “is still too early to evaluate fully.”

Keating faulted the state for not moving quickly enough to build more exercise yards and said some guards are cheating when they record how frequently they conduct the suicide checks.

But he also praised officials for expanding the use of the 30-minute checks to the first three weeks after an inmate is placed in segregation, instead of just the first 72 hours, when the danger is highest. Some inmates also are now allowed to have radios or televisions while in isolation.

“We are hopeful, of course,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But she added, “We all feel it is way too soon to say whether all of these things are working.”


Prison overcrowding also contributed to the soaring number of suicides the last two years, said attorney Jane Kahn, who represents inmates in a class-action lawsuit.

“It is incredibly overcrowded, understaffed and locked down, with inadequate mental health care,” she said.

Three federal judges are considering limits on the prisons’ population, which at 172,000 inmates is nearly double its designed capacity.

Corrections Secretary James Tilton said the central effort to solve the problem is the $7.8 billion prison and county jail building program recently passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That program, coupled with transferring thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states, will free space for treatment and rehabilitation programs, Tilton said.

Kahn is less enthusiastic because she said the program involves too little for improving mental health care.

“It’s very, very discouraging, given the amount of money they’re spending,” she said.

While conditions are harsh throughout the prison system, efforts to prevent suicides are focused on the disproportionate number of deaths in segregation units, which prisoners refer to as “The Hole.”

There, inmates are locked in their cells at least 23 hours a day for their own protection, disciplinary violations or investigations. Isolation terms average 68 days but can stretch for months.

The sudden isolation, the stress from whatever incident prompted their transfer and the accompanying loss of possessions and privileges were found to be triggers for suicidal behavior, said Dr. Shama Chaiken, a chief psychologist with the corrections department.

To save inmates from themselves, guards sometimes use pepper spray to incapacitate those who are trying to hang or cut themselves. They also will handcuff unconscious inmates, in case they are faking death.

Some inmates thought to be suicidal are placed in barren cells and clothed only in quilted, smock-like garments that cannot easily be ripped and used as a noose. They are watched around the clock until their medications can be adjusted or mental health workers deem them no longer a risk.

To further frustrate inmates’ attempts to hang themselves, the administration has agreed to spend $19 million this year and next to replace certain items in isolation cells, such as light fixtures and vent covers.

While prison experts welcome the new procedures and additional spending, they also wonder what took California so long to get serious about addressing its inmate suicide problem.

California is far behind other states that have long been screening inmates for mental illness and suicidal intentions, said Lindsay M. Hayes, a suicide prevention expert with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. He said training employees to watch for and respond to suicide attempts also has lagged.

“It’s only probably in the last few months that they’re really seriously trying to reduce deaths in those (segregation) units,” said Hayes, who has consulted for inmates’ attorneys.

He predicted it could be five years before the department sees consistent results.