California Prison System Slammed Over ‘Troubling’ Inmate Suicide Rates

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Criticizing the state’s lax response to a recent spike in the rate of inmate suicides at California prisons, state auditors on Thursday said the corrections system is failing to evaluate and monitor at-risk inmates.

With inmate suicide rates at California prisons “substantially” above other state averages, including a disturbing spike in suicides among female inmates, the audit found widespread monitoring and training problems at four California state prisons. State Auditor Elaine Howle called the ongoing problems at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “troubling.”

“We found significant weaknesses in compliance with suicide prevention and response policies,” Howle said. “Although corrections has known about many of the issues related to suicide prevention and response policies and practices that we found for a number of years, it has not fully implemented processes to address the issues.”

Auditors reviewed 40 files of inmates who killed themselves or attempted suicide at four state prisons from 2014 through 2016, and evaluated the prisons’ response. In some cases, prisons did not perform or complete required risk evaluations on the inmates.

From 2005 through 2013, the average suicide rate in California prisons was 22 per 100,000 inmates, above the national rate of 15.66 per 100,000.

By performing faulty mental health evaluations, prison employees likely underestimated inmates’ risk of suicide, the audit claims. As a result, corrections officials should require mental health employees to take and pass stringent risk evaluation audits.

“We believe requiring mental health staff to adequately complete all sections is essential for reducing the risk of inmate suicide,” the audit states.

Over the last three years, suicide among female inmates has spiked: while making up about 4 percent of the inmate population, women accounted for 11 percent of total inmate suicides between 2014 and 2016. All but one of the suicides of female inmates happened at the California Institution for Women in San Bernardino County. Lawmakers noted the high alarming suicide rate at that prison in calling for the audit.

There have been no inmate suicides at the prison so far in 2017.

The audit is the latest batch of bad news for the corrections system, the largest state-run prison system in the nation.

In 2006, a federal judge stripped the state’s control over inmate health care delivery, citing a lack of doctors and substandard inmate health care. On Monday, the corrections department was sued by a prison psychologist claiming to have been locked in jail cells with inmates in retaliation for complaining about discrimination against transgender inmates.

While the state has made progress in cutting the inmate population, Howle says it has a long way to go in preventing inmate suicides. She recommends that lawmakers require corrections officials to implement stronger suicide risk evaluations and report on their progress annually. Howle advises corrections to conduct stiffer checks of high-risk inmates and explore programs that could cut back on female inmate suicides.

The corrections department responded with a promise to submit a corrective action plan within 60 days. It added it has “made a great deal of progress implementing policies, training and support for suicide prevention practices statewide, and acknowledges there is further progress to make.”

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