Our audit of Corrections’ policies and practices for inmate suicide prevention and response highlights the following:
- The average suicide rate in Corrections’ prisons was substantially higher than the average of U.S. state prisons.
- The rates of female inmates who committed suicide while in Corrections’ prisons have soared in recent years.
- We found significant weaknesses in compliance with suicide prevention and response policies when we reviewed 40 files on inmates who committed or attempted suicide at four prisons.
- Prisons failed to complete or completed inadequate risk evaluations for many of those inmates who required them.
- Prisons did not complete or created inadequate treatment plans for some inmates—plans did not always specify medication dosage and frequency, treatment methods, provider information, or follow-up upon discharge.
- Prisons did not properly monitor inmates who were at risk of committing suicide.
- Although Corrections has known about many of the issues related to suicide prevention and response policies and practices that we found for a number of years, it has not fully implemented processes to address the issues that have been raised.
- Corrections could take a more proactive leadership role in identifying programs or best practices and reviewing a prison’s practices following an inmate’s suicide attempt.
Results in Brief
Despite the fact that the rates of inmate suicide in California’s prisons has been higher on average than those of all U.S. state prisons for several years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Corrections) has failed to provide the leadership and oversight necessary to ensure that its prisons follow its policies related to inmate suicide prevention and response. Corrections is responsible for providing mental health services to its inmates who are unable to function within the usual correctional environment because of mental illness. However, from 2005 through 2013, the average suicide rate in Corrections’ prisons was 22 per 100,000 inmates—substantially higher than the average rate of 15.66 per 100,000 in U.S. state prisons during the same period. Further, in recent years, the rates of female inmates who committed suicide while in Corrections’ prisons have soared: from 2014 through 2016, female inmates made up only about 4 percent of Corrections’ total inmate population, yet they accounted for about 11 percent of its inmate suicides. These statistics, combined with the significant deficiencies we identified when we reviewed suicide prevention and response practices at four prisons, raise questions regarding Corrections’ leadership on this critical issue.
When we reviewed the California Institution for Women (CIW); California State Prison, Sacramento (SAC); Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF); and Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD), one area in which we identified significant weaknesses was the four prisons’ evaluations of inmates’ suicide risk. Specifically, for various reasons, including when inmates attempt suicide, express suicidal thoughts, or engage in self‑harm, Corrections’ policy requires that prison mental health staff (mental health staff) complete suicide risk evaluations (risk evaluations) to assess an inmate’s risk for suicide. These risk evaluations are critical to successful suicide prevention because they help mental health staff identify inmates who are likely to attempt suicide and the treatments needed to prevent them from doing so. Nonetheless, over the past several years, court‑appointed mental health experts have repeatedly notified Corrections of problems related to its risk evaluations. Further, when we examined the risk evaluations for the 36 of 40 inmates we reviewed who required them, we found that the prisons failed to complete at least one required risk evaluation for 10 of the inmates and completed inadequate risk evaluations for 26 of the inmates. The inadequacies we noted included leaving sections of the risk evaluations blank, failing to appropriately justify the determinations of risk, failing to develop adequate plans for treatment to reduce the inmates’ risk, and relying on inconsistent or incomplete information about the inmates to determine risk.
In 2013 Corrections established a risk evaluation training, as well as a mentoring program to assess, every two years, whether mental health staff adequately completed risk evaluations and to provide training as needed. Corrections enhanced the mentoring program in 2016 by requiring prisons to audit mental health staff’s risk evaluations twice each year and to have these staff undergo mentoring if they failed the audit; however, the results of our review demonstrate that this program has not resolved the problems. The failure may be due in part to Corrections allowing mental health staff to improperly complete significant sections of the risk evaluations and still pass Corrections’ audit. According to Corrections’ clinical support chief, Corrections does not expect perfection from its mental health staff. She also stated that despite their training, some mental health staff still do not know how to complete risk evaluations, and that others may rush when completing them because of their heavy workloads. Although Corrections has taken some steps to address these issues, the fact that the problems with the risk evaluations have continued shows that Corrections must increase its oversight.
Similarly, the prisons we reviewed failed to complete required treatment plans for some inmates and created inadequate treatment plans for others. Treatment plans are crucial to suicide prevention: based on the inmates’ needs, they set goals for the inmates’ treatment and determine the specific treatment methods mental health staff will use. State regulations and Corrections’ policy require that prisons complete a plan for initial treatment (initial treatment plan) within 24 hours of an inmate’s admission to a mental health crisis bed (crisis bed) and a more comprehensive plan within 72 hours of admission (72‑hour treatment plan). Initial treatment plans are important because they prescribe treatment for the first few days of an inmate’s crisis‑bed stay. Nonetheless, when we reviewed the files of 26 inmates who required them, we found that CIW, CCWF, and RJD did not complete initial treatment plans for some inmates. Further, 25 inmates also required 72‑hour treatment plans, but one prison did not complete such plans for two inmates. Finally, all 23 of the remaining 72‑hour treatment plans we reviewed failed to meet the requirements outlined in state regulations. The most common problems we identified were that the plans did not specify medication dosage and frequency, treatment methods, the providers responsible for the treatments, or the follow‑up treatments for the inmates who were discharged.
The four prisons also did not properly monitor inmates who were at risk of committing suicide. Corrections’ policies require prisons to conduct staggered behavior checks at intervals not to exceed every 15 minutes of inmates who are at high risk of self‑injury but not in immediate danger. However, when we reviewed records for 25 such inmates, we found that the prisons exceeded 15‑minute intervals for checks on 17 inmates, did not stagger checks for 19 inmates, and appeared to have prefilled or preprinted the forms documenting checks for eight inmates. Corrections said that a new electronic health record system that it is currently implementing systemwide will reduce some of these issues, as will a planned audit process that will include automated monitoring of these checks. Nevertheless, we still found problems with staff not staggering checks or conducting checks that exceeded intervals of 15 minutes at two prisons that implemented the new system, bringing into question whether it will fully resolve the problems we identified.
Taken as a whole, the types of compliance issues we identified at the four prisons we reviewed may have contributed to Corrections’ continuing high suicide rates relative to those of prison systems in other states. In addition, a number of specific factors may have contributed to elevated suicide and suicide attempt rates among Corrections’ female inmates. As we mention previously, the rate of suicide among female inmates has increased dramatically since 2014. This increase is especially pronounced at CIW, where six of the seven suicides by female inmates from 2014 through 2016 occurred. Officials at Corrections and CIW identified a number of reasons why the suicide rate at CIW may have increased during this period, including domestic violence in interpersonal relationships, drug involvement, and drug trafficking. Officials at CIW further cited a change in prison culture resulting from the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s institution and the subsequent transfer of high‑security‑level inmates to CIW.
In addition, we found that some staff members at CIW and the other prisons we visited had not completed required trainings related to suicide prevention and response. Corrections’ policies require prison staff to participate in specific trainings on issues such as preventing suicide, assessing inmates’ suicide risk, and developing treatment plans. However, when we reviewed records for 20 staff members at CIW, we found that the prison could not provide evidence that the staff members attended all required trainings. For example, the prison could not demonstrate that four of the 20 staff members attended annual required suicide prevention training in 2016. Further, Corrections’ officials reported that not all staff members at the other three prisons received required trainings in 2016. Corrections’ clinical support chief was unable to explain why these staff members had not participated in trainings as required. Instead, she stated that Corrections relies on the prisons’ in‑service training units to address clinical training noncompliance issues.
The ongoing nature of many of the problems we identified at the four prisons we reviewed is particularly troubling. A court‑appointed special master has overseen many aspects of Corrections’ provision of mental health care since 1995. Since at least 1999, the special master has identified many of the same problems we found in our audit. In January 2015, the special master filed a report that was an audit of suicide prevention practices in each of the 35 prisons, which contained 32 recommendations. Corrections responded to the majority of these recommendations through the adoption of new policies, improvements to its facilities, changes to its trainings, and other actions. However, Corrections has not yet fully ensured prisons’ compliance with changes resulting from the recommendations. According to Corrections, it began developing an audit process in 2013 to audit prisons’ compliance with policies and procedures, but it has not yet completed that process nearly five years later, explaining that it continues to work on finalizing it with the special master. Absent such monitoring, Corrections lacks assurance that the prisons are addressing the serious problems the special master has identified.
Further, Corrections could take a more proactive leadership role in identifying programs and best practices that may help in preventing inmate suicide. For example, we identified best practices at one of the prisons we visited that we believe could benefit certain inmates at other prisons. Although Corrections recently conducted a suicide prevention summit with the chiefs of mental health and other prison leadership, at which it discussed best practices related to prisons’ suicide prevention efforts, its documentation and dissemination of innovative programs and best practices related to suicide prevention has generally been limited. Similarly, Corrections has not conducted thorough reviews of the circumstances surrounding suicide attempts. Pursuant to its policies, the death of an inmate by suicide initiates an intensive review process in which Corrections identifies any problems with the prison’s compliance with policies and procedures. It then issues a report containing recommendations to address those problems. However, Corrections requires no such review for suicide attempts. Corrections’ clinical support chief explained that Corrections plans to implement a process for each prison to review a selection of its incidents of inmate self‑harm; however, we question whether such reviews will be sufficiently impartial and critical. Without a thorough and unbiased review of the factors contributing to inmate suicide attempts, Corrections is hindered in its ability to identify potential problems with a prison’s suicide prevention and response practices until after an inmate dies.
To provide additional accountability for Corrections’ efforts to respond to and prevent inmate suicides and attempted suicides, the Legislature should require that Corrections report to it in April 2018 and annually thereafter on the following issues:
- Its progress toward meeting its goals related to the completion of suicide risk evaluations in a sufficient manner.
- Its progress toward meeting its goals related to the completion of 72‑hour treatment plans in a sufficient manner.
- The status of its efforts to ensure that all staff receive training related to suicide prevention and response.
- Its progress in implementing the recommendations made by the special master regarding inmate suicides and attempts. Corrections should also include in its report to the Legislature the results of any audits it conducts as part of its planned audit process to measure the success of changes it implements as a result of these recommendations.
- Its progress in identifying and implementing mental health programs at the prisons that may ameliorate risk factors associated with suicide.
Corrections should immediately require mental health staff to score 100 percent on risk evaluation audits in order to pass. If a staff member does not pass, Corrections should require the prison to follow its current policies by reviewing additional risk evaluations to determine whether the staff member needs to undergo additional mentoring.
To ensure that prison staff conduct required checks of inmates on suicide precaution in a timely manner, Corrections should implement its automated process to monitor these checks in its electronic health record system by October 2017.
To address the unique circumstances that may increase its female inmates’ rates of suicide and suicide attempts, Corrections should continue to explore programs that could address the suicide risk factors for female inmates.
To ensure that all prison staff receive required training related to suicide prevention and response, Corrections should immediately implement a process for identifying prisons where staff are not attending required trainings and for working with the prisons to solve the issues preventing attendance.
To ensure that prisons comply with its policies related to suicide prevention and response, Corrections should continue to develop its audit process and implement it at all prisons by February 2018. The process should include, but not be limited to, audits of the quality of prisons’ risk evaluations and treatment plans.
To ensure that all its prisons provide inmates with effective mental health care, Corrections should continue to take a role in coordinating and disseminating best practices related to mental health treatment by conducting a best practices summit at least annually. The summits should focus on all aspects of suicide prevention and response, including programs that seek to improve inmate mental health and treatment of and response to suicide attempts. Corrections should document and disseminate this information among the prisons, assist prisons in implementing the best practices through training and communication when needed, and monitor and report publicly on the successes and challenges of adopted practices.
In an effort to prevent future inmate suicide attempts, Corrections should implement its plan to review attempts with the same level of scrutiny that it uses during its suicide reviews. Corrections should require each prison to identify for review at least one suicide attempt per year that occurred at that prison. To ensure that the reviews include critical and unbiased feedback, Corrections should either conduct these reviews itself or require the prisons to review each other. These reviews should start in September 2017 and follow the same timelines as the suicide reviews, with the timeline beginning once the team identifies a suicide attempt for review.
Corrections stated it would address the specific recommendations in a corrective action plan within the timelines outlined in the report. We look forward to Corrections’ 60-day response to our recommendations.