SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A spike in suicides and attempted suicides has prompted corrections officials to step up oversight at a California women's prison as inspectors try to pinpoint the cause of the troubling increase.
Four women have killed themselves at California Institution for Women in San Bernardino County in the last 18 months, according to state records. The suicide rate at the facility is more than eight times the national rate for female inmates and more than five times the rate for the entire California prison system.
Such deaths in custody have drawn scrutiny since Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell after a traffic stop that gained national attention amid increased focus on police practices, though she died in a county jail and not a state prison.
In California, the Institution for Women is the only women's prison in the state to have had any suicides in the last five years, and another 20 of the prison's 2,000 inmates have attempted suicide during the last year and a half.
It is a shocking turnaround at a facility that last year was cited as a rare example of California providing proper mental health treatment for inmates. All four women who died were receiving mental health treatment in the days before their deaths.
The prison's psychiatric program was promoted as a positive example in May 2014 by Matthew Lopes, a federal court-appointed overseer who monitors mental health treatment for inmates. Of six inpatient programs for mentally ill inmates statewide, he found that only the one at the women's institution was providing proper care.
But this January, court-appointed suicide expert Lindsay Hayes labeled the prison "a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention." They included inadequate suicide risk evaluations and treatment and not checking on inmates as often as required by department regulations.
That was before Gui Fei Zhang, 73, killed herself a day after being released from suicide watch in February, according to the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Stephanie Feliz, 34, hanged herself less than a month later after several previous attempts and after seeking emergency mental health care the same day she died, the group said, citing letters from her fellow inmates.
"(W)e have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why we believe they are killing themselves," inmate April Harris, who has been in prison since 1998, wrote to the coalition after Feliz's death. "I have never seen anything like this. Ever."
Before the recent surge, there were three suicides at the institution in 14 years.
Cirese LaBerge, who was incarcerated with Feliz for more than a decade, told The Associated Press her friend "was a young, pretty blonde and full of life" who grew despondent in the months before her death.
"I could see her downward spiraling and asking for help, and didn't receive it," said LaBerge, who was paroled from the prison in March. "It just seems like they're housing the mentally ill and not getting them the help they need."
California prisons have long had a suicide problem, but not among female inmates.
Suicide is predominantly a male phenomenon in prison as in society at large, yet women at the Southern California prison have been killing themselves at "an astronomical rate," said Jane Kahn, an attorney who has fought to improve prison suicide prevention efforts.
By comparison, there were no suicides in any of California's three women's prisons during a similar 18-month period in 2011-12.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation studied each suicide once it realized there was "a cluster, a spike" at the women's prison, said spokeswoman Dana Simas.
"They could not identify one single underlying issue that indicated that CDCR had any deficiencies in mental health treatment, in lapses in supervision. There were so many variables in each individual's case that it didn't point to anything specific that CDCR was doing wrong," she said. However, the department increased mental health training for prison employees, with extra supervision for some who had "performance issues," she said.
The prison system's inspector general recently began sending inspectors to the women's prison day or night whenever there is a suicide or attempted suicide, the only one of the state's 34 prisons with that level of scrutiny. The decision was made so "our set of eyes can try to pinpoint what's going on ... since it seems to be spiking there," spokesman Shaun Spillane said.