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State prisons not ready to end court oversight, official says

Gov. Jerry Brown's campaign to halt intervention is premature and a distraction, report says.

January 19, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
  • At Kern Valley State Prison, the court-appointed monitor found that mentally ill offenders had been isolated as long as 292 days. The court compliance rate is 30 days.
At Kern Valley State Prison, the court-appointed monitor found that mentally… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — A court-appointed monitor said Friday that Gov. Jerry Brown's quest to end judicial oversight in state prisons is "not only premature, but a needless distraction" from improving care for mentally ill inmates.

Special Master Matthew Lopes cited dozens of suicides last year, long isolation instead of treatment and lapses in care as reasons federal oversight should continue.

Lopes' assessment, in a report filed Friday with the U.S. District Court, came after he visited two-thirds of California's prisons. He had intended to see all 33 lockups, he said, but soon determined that only Sacramento — not individual wardens — could fix the underlying problems with mental health treatment in the corrections system.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the agency would have a full response to the 609-page report later.

Brown wants the courts to halt oversight of the mental health services and withdraw orders to reduce overcrowding. He declared last week that California has "one of the finest prison systems in the United States" and that inmates get "far better" medical care, including mental health care, in prison than those outside.

Lopes disagreed.

"Any attempt at a more abrupt conclusion to court oversight would be … not only premature but a needless distraction from the important work that is being done in the quality improvement project," he told the court.

He was especially critical of the suicide rate in California prisons.

He said there were at least 32 suicides in state prisons last year, averaging one every 11 days. Lopes said that translates to almost 24 suicides per 100,000 inmates, a 13% 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 with inmates discharged from crisis care.

"The problem of inmate suicides … must be resolved before the remedial phase of the Coleman case can be ended," Lopes wrote, referring to the 2001 lawsuit that led to the appointment of a special master. "The gravity of this problem calls for further intervention. To do any less and to wait any longer risks further loss of lives."

Assistant Secretary of Communications Deborah Hoffman said, "We take suicides very seriously and have one of the most robust suicide prevention programs in the nation."

Lopes also said in his report that all 11 outpatient care hubs in the prison system still conduct inmate counseling sessions in public, despite the need for confidential settings, and 10 of those hubs fail to offer at least 10 hours of structured therapy per week, a provision Lopes said "should be made a priority."

A training program designed to help prison guards interact with mentally ill inmates and mental health providers showed no improvement in use-of-force incidents or missed treatment sessions, Lopes said.

He also documented instances of mentally ill inmates being housed for extended periods in isolation units. At Kern Valley State Prison, mentally ill offenders had been isolated as long as 292 days. The court compliance rate is 30 days.

Families of mentally ill inmates expressed their own frustration.

Blanca Gonzalez said her 31-year-old son's mental state has deteriorated since his incarceration. She said he was put into segregation on Thanksgiving and not moved to a psychiatric unit until last week.

"I am watching my son die in front of me and no one seems to care," Gonzalez said.

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