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Special master says prison mental health care inadequate, suicides increase

January 18, 2013 |  3:55 pm

A court-appointed monitor on Friday told federal judges that mental health care in California’s prisons remains inadequate and in some areas is deteriorating, especially in regard to inmate suicides.

The legal filing is a setback to Gov. Jerry Brown’s push for California to take back full control of the prison system, which he argues no longer mistreats those in its custody. Brown last week asked a panel of federal judges to lift population caps on the state's 33 prisons and asked one of those judges to dismiss the 2001 class action over mental health care, Coleman vs. Brown.

Special master Matthew Lopes in his report Friday noted gains in how the state documents and reports mental health care, but not in how California is geared to improve those conditions. He cited needed changes that went undone because of a lack in statewide monitoring and central oversight -- steps he said California would need to address if it were to take over mental health care on its own.

Lopes was especially critical of suicide rates in California prisons.

He said there were at least 32 suicides in state prisons in 2012, averaging one suicide every 11 days. Lopes notes that translates to almost 24 suicides per 100,000 inmates, an increase over 2011, and well above the national suicide rate of 16 deaths per 100,000 prisoners.

The state's high suicide rate prompted a 2010 court order to adopt suicide prevention practices. Lopes said the state has made progress on those steps, but fewer than one out of four prisons hold suicide prevention team meetings as required, and only three prisons complied with the requirement for five-day follow-ups of inmates discharged from crisis care.

"The problem of inmate suicides in CDCR prisons must be resolved before the remedial phase of the Coleman case can be ended," Lopes wrote. "The gravity of this problem calls for further intervention. To do any less and to wait any longer risks further loss of lives."


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--Paige St. John in Sacramento