by John E. Dannenberg
By the time 2005 ended, 44 California state prisoners had committed suicide. A significant increase over the 26 suicides that occurred in 2004. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) suicide rate is currently running at 27 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, compared with 14 per 100,000 nationally. The general community suicide rate is 11 per 100,000. CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton commented that the rate in 2004 was only 16 per 100,000 and that the number of suicides fluctuates widely. But lawyers representing the estimated 26,000 seriously mentally ill California prisoners say that this is a problem that has been building for years.
Aggravating problems they cite include a security classification system that counts mental illness as a security danger, which automatically routes the mentally ill to tougher prisons where they are housed with more violent cellmates and receive reduced privileges and amenities plus lots of lockdown time. Attorney Tom Nolan said, Youre pretty isolated, and for people who are suicidal you want as much human interaction as possible.
Two years ago, CDCR terminated its policy of stationing a guard in front of each suicide-risk cell, in favor of video monitoring. Nolan complained that this lacks the one-on-one interaction that might be suddenly needed to thwart a suicide. The attorneys and court special master asked CDCR to install vent covers on ceiling vents in SHU and administrative segregation cells to prevent prisoners from stringing up cords, after noting that in 2003, nine of CDCRs suicides occurred this way. This is particularly a problem at the mental wards at California Mens Colony state prison and at Atascadero State Hospital. Moreover, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kariton ordered that prison guards provide the first line of immediate life support action to apparent suicide victims, instead of waiting for medical workers to arrive. Such delays contributed to ten deaths in 2003, according to the courts special master.
Indeed, court monitor Dr. Raymond Patterson, in his April 2005 report, concluded that 74% of the 2003 suicides were probably foreseeable or preventable. There are more than 400 suicide attempts in CDCR annually, according to prison officials. Then Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman was concerned, adding that California recently hired suicide prevention consultant Thomas White, a formal federal prison official.
But another crosscurrent may be facing CDCR. With cell space at a premium, single cells are reserved for psychiatrically dangerous prisoners and condemned prisoners. Robert Glenn, 33, after serving 2 ½ months of his 22 year voluntary manslaughter sentence at Pleasant Valley State Prison, was upset at the specter of doing the balance of his term in a double cell. Glenns previous requests to be moved elsewhere had been denied. So, he took matters into his own hands when on August 5, 2005 he calmly strangled his cellmate with a shoelace so that, upon the resulting murder conviction, he would get the death penalty and gain a coveted single cell on San Quentin State Prisons Death Row.
Glenn has been charged with murder, but the prosecutor has not announced if he will seek the optional death penalty. It is entirely possible that Glenn simply represents a novel expression of mental illness in prison, suicide-by-murder. If he doesnt get the death penalty, maybe at least he will score single-cell status based upon CDCR psychological dangerousness determinants.
Sources: Fresno Bee, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times.
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