The suicide rate in California prisons reached its highest level in decades in 2019. The total number of suicides in prison for 2019 was 36. This is a rate of 28.7 suicides per 100,000 prisoners, which results in an increase over last year's rate of 26.3. This rate is well above the national average of 20 and is the highest rate since tracking of the figure began in California in 1990. The suicide rate in California prisons is more than double the rate in the general American population.
Failures in Mental Health Care
California’s suicides are most likely the result of a system that has failed for decades to properly help prisoners with mental illness. In a 1995 decision by a federal court, it was found that the inadequate mental health care in prison was so bad that it violated the constitutional rights of the prisoners. Corrections officials were forced by the court to make reforms, and the court appointed a Special Master to oversee the prison system.
It has also been reported that failures to obey policy and procedure have led to an increase in suicides. Prisoners who were at risk for suicides were not properly monitored. In addition, long wait times for mental health care and a lack of prison psychiatrists could all have contributed to the crisis.
Disturbingly, 10 of the 36 suicides occurred in special housing units where prisoners are kept separate from the general population, sometimes in solitary confinement. Prisoners in special housing may have psychiatric issues, have violated prison rules, or have known gang affiliations. Given the small number of prisoners in special housing, this suicide rate amounted to a shocking 203.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
This increase in suicides in California prisons may result in increased federal scrutiny of the system, which is already under the microscope. Suicidal people behind bars in California are clearly not getting the help they need. In order to improve the system, serious changes must be implemented or the crisis will worsen.
If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.