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Auditor: Calif. women’s inmate suicide rate too high

Suicides spiked at one prison after officials failed to properly prepare for the transfer of 400 of the state’s most dangerous female inmates to the facility

By Paul Elias
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Suicides spiked at a California women’s prison after officials failed to properly prepare for the transfer of 400 of the state’s most dangerous female inmates to the facility, the state auditor said Thursday.

In a report published Thursday, the auditor also found flaws in suicide prevention plans at all four women’s prisons.

Women comprise 4 percent of California’s prison population but accounted for 11 percent of suicides from 2012 to 2016.

“The ongoing nature of many of the problems we identified at the four prisons we reviewed is particularly troubling,” the report concluded.

State Auditor Elaine Howle reported that seven of the eight suicides of women inmates between 2013 and 2016 occurred at the California Institution for Women in Chino. She says the culture of the prison changed dramatically when prison officials transferred maximum security inmates there in 2012.

The suicide spike at Chino prompted state lawmakers to request the audit.

Prison officials say their suicide prevention programs have improved, including the addition of more counseling.

There have been no suicides at the Chino prison this year, though two women inmates killed themselves in other prisons in 2017.

The population of California women’s prisons has fallen from 6,643 in 2012 to 4,743 last year after the state’s “realignment” laws and policies shifted non-violent prisoners to county jails. Prison officials attributed some of the suicide spike to the larger percentage of violent inmates who now make up much of the prison population since realignment. Prison officials also posited that increased drug use and violence among women inmates contributed to the increase.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Scott Kernan told the auditor that the prison system has since “improved its practices” in many of the areas the auditor found deficient and will consider incorporating other recommendations.

Kernan said he would respond with more details within 60 days.

California Institution for Women Warden Kimberly Hughes retired last summer under pressure from Kernan.

Kernan also forced the 2016 retirement of Deborah Johnson, warden at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Two other senior staff members at the Chowchilla prison also were being reassigned.

A series of lawsuits in recent years forced the state to lower its total inmate population and cede control of prisoner health care to a federal receiver.

“Assessment is not a one-time event, but a process that should be ongoing throughout the at-risk patient’s incarceration.”
“He needs competent mental healthcare. Surely the prison can find a place to put him where he is not a danger to himself or others,” the inmate’s attorney said
A state investigation found that jailers failed to check on Dean Stewart, 50, three times in the 24 hours leading up to his death
Since Jan. 1, nine inmates have died by suicide, with suspected staff shortages largely to blame