CA pays high price for not significantly reducing prison suicides

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

More than 200 inmates in California have died by suicide over the past eight years, says Don Thompson, a freelance reporter for Kaiser Health News. Credit: Shutterstock.

Starting this month, California began accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in fines a day over its handling of suicides at state prisons. Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller says the state isn’t doing enough to prevent them, and that state corrections officials have failed for years now to implement court-ordered suicide prevention measures. 

More than 200 inmates have died by suicide over the past eight years, says Don Thompson, a freelance reporter for Kaiser Health News who has spoken to families of prisoners who died by suicide. 

The state is not fully complying with 15 green-lit safeguards, such as training staff, checking that vulnerable inmates aren’t killing themselves, evaluating prisoners for suicide risk, and reducing areas where people can hang a noose inside cells, he lists.  

Meanwhile, the state says they’re making progress, as evidenced by fewer suicides happening. In 2021, there were 15 suicides, which Thompson says equates to half of the state’s annual average over the last 20 years. 

Still, court experts say officials should have been able to spot warning signs and acted accordingly. 

Thompson shares one troubling case: An inmate at the maximum security prison in Sacramento County had been drinking liquid cleanser inside his cell, and a correctional officer said he was acting irrationally, crying, and pacing back and forth. He was distressed after having phone calls with his family. On Christmas Eve 2020, a crisis counselor came to his cell, but the inmate denied an intention to kill himself, so the counselor left. Afterward, the inmate made violent punctures to his own neck, ending his life. 

Thompson also tells the story of John Pantoja. His family says he was outgoing and happy before going into the juvenile justice system at age 16. They say he came out with schizophrenia and mood swings. Months after his release, he committed a robbery and exchanged gunfire with Chula Vista police in 2012. His defense said he was “attempting suicide by cop,” meaning he tried to get an officer to kill him. When Pantoja went to prison, his condition worsened. His family says he didn’t get adequate mental health treatment there, and his body contained medication for depression, pain, and seizures. He ultimately hung himself at age 31.

Prison suicides have been an ongoing issue — “one that multiple [state] administrations have been unable to address to the liking of the federal courts,” Thompson points out.