California Suppressed Report On Inmate Suicides

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Less than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed California health care constitutionally inadequate and subject to federal court supervision, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared that the prison emergency is “over” and that further improvements would “gold-plate our prisons.” What Brown didn’t highlight, however, are identified problems that have been correlated to a spate of prison suicides. The concerns were raised by a national expert on prison suicides, commissioned by the state but whose findings were mostly “buried” until the defendants in the ongoing court supervision of the state’s prisons uncovered them. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on suicide prevention in prisons, told corrections officials in 2011 that the state’s system of holding suicidal inmates for days in dim, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor was compounding the risk that they would take their own lives.

His report described in detail inmates being divested of their clothes and possessions and robed in a “safety smock.” Hayes concluded that such conditions encouraged prisoners to declare they were no longer suicidal just to escape the holding cells. Many of them took their own lives soon after.

The state asked Hayes to create a short version of his report that omitted his damaging findings, to give to a court monitor and lawyers for prisoners, the court documents show. Hayes complied, but when inmate attorneys obtained a complete copy, the state asked a U.S. District Court to order it destroyed. The judge refused.

The report says the state’s handling of suicidal inmates is “seemingly punitive” and “anti-therapeutic.” Hayes noted that guards, not mental health workers, dictate many of the conditions of suicide watches, such as whether to allow daily showers. Hayes alleged prison workers sometimes falsified watch logs showing how frequently those inmates were checked.

Brown’s lawyers had argued that Hayes was hired for internal use and that his report was not intended to be a part of the litigation. But the judge overseeing court monitoring ruled that whether or not Hayes’ findings were intended for litigation, the state was not entitled to have the documents destroyed, and that Hayes’ findings are both relevant to the ongoing assessment of prison conditions and admissible in court.

Setting aside whether the state should have voluntarily made Hayes’ complete findings available to the court or the defendants, what this report shows is that Gov. Brown withheld findings that don’t suit the state’s interests when he declared the prison emergency “over.” California is poised to miss the final court-imposed deadline for reducing prison overcrowding linked to poor health conditions, but contends the population reduction is no longer necessary.