by Ed Lyon
While an estimated 40 percent of all prisoners have a diagnosed mental health condition, the number of prisoners suffering from a serious mental illness reached 14 percent of the general prison population by 2018. Mentally ill prisoners are much more likely to commit suicide.
The three largest prison systems in order of size are the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Although the CDCR is smallest of the “big three,” California state prisoners are committing suicide at substantially higher rates than those in the BOP, TDCJ and all other state prison systems.
As bad as the suicide rates in California prisons are, female prisoners have a higher per capita rate than males. [See article on p.50]. Only four percent of the state’s prison population, women represented 11 percent of prisoner suicides in 2014 through 2016. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.56]. Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed a whopping 700 percent over the past 40 years, with women receiving life sentences at twice the rate of male defendants.
A total of 663 CDCR prisoners have taken their own lives from 1999 to the present. That is twice as many suicides as in the BOP during the same time period. For 2018, the CDCR experienced 34 suicides, making the rate for that year alone 26.3 per 100,000 prisoners.
At one point, Texas held the record in American jurisprudential history for the longest-running prison civil rights case. Ruiz v. Estelle, first docketed in 1972, was dismissed under a Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) motion in 2002. California is eclipsing that record with Coleman v. Newsom, which was docketed in 1991, decided in 1995 and is thus far still under court supervision. The primary difference between the cases is that Ruiz addressed a plethora of unconstitutional conditions in the TDCJ, whereas Coleman is focused solely on CDCR’s mentally ill prisoners.
The federal district court held in its initial decision in Coleman that there was a “systemic failure” by the state “to deliver necessary care to mentally ill inmates,” and the deprivation of that care violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights. The very fact that the Coleman’s court supervision has lasted so long, surviving the strict termination provisions of the PLRA, is testament to the seriousness of the problems that mentally ill prisoners face in California state prisons. At present, there are 38,000 prisoners on the CDCR’s mental health case loads.
Regarding suicides, despite policies requiring prison guards to ensure that at-risk prisoners remain alive through periodic visual cell inspections, the bodies of some prisoners who killed themselves have been found with rigor mortis, which occurs anywhere from two to four hours after death. An especially egregious example is Erika Rocha, who had attempted suicide numerous times during her nearly 20 years in prison. She successfully hanged herself in her cell on April 14, 2016, using a bed sheet, one day before her parole hearing. Rocha’s body was in a state of full rigor by the time prison guards discovered it, indicating that she had been hanging for hours. According to an August 2019 news report, the CDCR paid $1.5 million to settle a wrongful death suit filed by Rocha’s family.
Four male prisoners who committed suicide in 2017 were also dead for hours before being found, despite obviously forged log entries showing that visual checks were performed every 30 minutes. All were discovered in a state of full rigor.
Even though the plight of CDCR’s mentally ill prisoners has actually worsened since the initial decision in Coleman, it appears that apart from rendering lip service, prison officials have gone no further. Several requests for interviews by the San Francisco Chronicle have been ignored, some denied.
In the absence of any kind of official action to prevent suicides in the CDCR, prisoner Marvin Mutch has founded an impromptu organization called Brother’s Keepers. Mutch’s longtime friend committed suicide while incarcerated on February 17, 2005. Mutch then organized the group and managed to obtain suicide prevention training from the Bay Area Women Against Rape.
The group remains ready to meet with suicidal prisoners, listen to them and, where appropriate, respond as needed.
“We found the secret sauce was that prisoners were able to let this out in a safe way ... in a secure and comforting bubble,” Mutch explained in an interview with the Chronicle. He added, “People are just loath to go to the people who are locking their cage and tell them they are depressed about this lock. Even if prisoncrats are unwilling to help prisoners at risk for suicide, prisoners are at least taking positive steps to help each other. It is a start.”
Sources: courthousenews.com, ocregister.com, rbgg.com, sacbee.com, sfchronicle.com, thecrimereport.org
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