Prison Mental Health Care

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State Seeks Return to Full Control over Prison System Mental Health Care

By Julie Small, KPCC

Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, CA. (Michael Montgomery/KQED)

Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, CA. (Michael Montgomery/KQED)

More than a decade ago, a federal judge appointed a special master to oversee mental health care in the California state prison system. Since then, California has spent billions of dollars to improve psychiatric care for inmates. On Wednesday, the state will formally ask to have that oversight ended. But a high suicide rate among inmates is complicating the state’s petition.

Experts hired by the state and by the court say there are  fundamental problems with how the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation handles suicidal prisoners.

The experts say things go wrong as soon as an inmate is labeled suicidal. While waiting for a psychiatric assessment, the prisoner is placed in a holding cell the size of a telephone booth.

Despite the billions spent overall on mental health care, the suicide rate in California’s prisons has been going up.
Jane Kahn, a lawyer who represent inmates in lawsuits against the prison system, says male prisoners are often stripped “and left just in their boxers.”

“The biggest concern is that prisoners will not report that they’re feeling suicidal if they’re held in these kind of settings,” Kahn adds. “We think it’s one of the many factors that explains this high rate of suicide within our system.”

And despite the billions spent overall on mental health care, the suicide rate in California’s prisons has been going up. Over the past 14 years an average of 31 prisoners a year have killed themselves -– a rate higher than the national averages for federal and state prisons as a whole. Continue reading