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Jail Suicides Reach Record Pace in State

Incarceration: Last year, 38 inmates killed themselves. Some experts blame the recent surge on forcing more of the mentally ill behind bars.

June 16, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More California jail inmates are killing themselves than ever before, and some experts believe it's because mentally ill people are inappropriately landing in jail.

Last year, 38 inmates committed suicide, most by strangulation, usually with jail bedding but sometimes with socks or even shoelaces. One inmate managed to hold a plastic bag over his head until he suffocated.

The death total was a sharp rise over the 23 suicides recorded in 2000. It also surpassed the previous high of 37, recorded nearly 20 years ago before sweeping reforms were adopted to identify suicidal arrestees and keep them under close supervision.

If this year's pace of 10 suicides in the first quarter holds up, another record will be set.

One of the state's leading experts in jail medical care expressed surprise.

"I believe there should be an in-depth look at these instances statewide to see if anyone can find a pattern," said Rebecca Craig of San Francisco's Institute for Medical Quality, a California Medical Assn. subsidiary that independently reviews jail medical care.

"The surge is a concern to us," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

It's hard "for people on the outside to have sympathy" for a jail inmate who commits suicide, said Lindsay M. Hayes, assistant director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

But the issue is a public concern, if only for coldly financial reasons: Victims' families often file suit, potentially costing taxpayers millions of dollars if jailers are found to have failed in their duties.

Also, of the 38 suicide cases in 2001, the vast majority of inmates had not been convicted but were awaiting trial.

Records filed with the state Department of Justice by the counties where the suicides occurred showed that the victims were young and old, educated and unemployed, and accused of a gamut of crimes from petty theft to murder. A number suffered from mental problems that raised, or could have raised, a red flag to jailers.

There were high-profile inmates such as accused Sacramento multiple murderer Nikolay Soltys, who killed himself earlier this year despite being watched constantly by a surveillance camera.

Most, however, were little more than footnotes in the local paper, such as James Riberal, a 33-year-old construction worker with a drinking problem who hanged himself after being placed in a Stockton jail on a charge of petty theft.

Several were placed in special suicide-watch holding cells after their arrests, only to be moved to the general jail population, where they finally killed themselves.

"We know there are suicides occurring," said William J. Crout, deputy director of the state Board of Corrections. "It's not surprising [that the numbers are going up] given the number of individuals in county jails identified as mentally ill."

The board's latest survey of county jail conditions statewide shows that the number of inmates getting mental health treatment has more than doubled in just five years.

"There are a lot of people in jail who should be in mental institutions," said Jordan, the Lockyer spokeswoman.

But Craig said the surge in jail suicides may also indicate that the profile of a suicidal inmate is changing, making it harder to spot those thinking of ending their lives. It has long been accepted wisdom, she said, that the best way to find out if an inmate is suicidal is to ask him or her. But in every case she was aware of, "the inmate is denying any suicide ideation."

Although 38 suicides in one year may not seem like a large number, one way to put it into perspective is to compare the county jail totals with California's 33 state prisons, where criminals are sent once they have been convicted of felonies.

Out of a prison population of 157,493 inmates last year, 21 killed themselves. That amounts to 13 per 100,000, comparable to the rate in the general population, Crout said. The suicide rate for the 73,000 county jail inmates serving time for misdemeanor offenses or awaiting trial on felony charges is 52 per 100,000--four times higher.

Counties contacted said they could not talk about individual cases. In several instances, lawsuits have been filed by victims' families.

Other causes of death in jail besides suicide include accidents, illnesses and homicide at the hands of another inmate. But suicide has been a leading cause for many years.

In 1983, when the previous peak was reached, inmate suicides accounted for nearly half the total of 85 deaths in California jails. After a wave of wrongful death lawsuits, local jurisdictions took steps to bring down the number of inmates killing themselves.

Special suicide-watch cells were opened, jailers were instructed in how to spot a despondent inmate and bureaucratic red tape was snipped to give inmates easier access to doctors and medication.

"Compared to the late '70s and early '80s, jails are more professionally operated," Crout said.

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