California’s prison system has been plagued by inmate suicides for years, a problem so persistent that a Sacramento federal judge has required regular reports on the deaths of every inmate who ends their own life and a review of how it happened.
This week, a reminder of the scope of the problem was served up in federal court, when the state agreed to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Robert St. Jovite, a prisoner who hanged himself with a bed sheet nearly a decade ago.
St. Jovite was an inmate at California State Prison-Solano. He was 44 years old when he died on May 10, 2006.
Since his death, St. Jovite’s family has waged an unceasing legal battle, claiming the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was responsible for his wrongful death and a violation of his civil rights.
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The case went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and back to Sacramento before the department agreed to settle.
“For me, I am just mainly happy that some of what goes on in prison will be brought to the public’s attention,” St. Jovite’s mother, Sherie Lemire, said from her home in Lincoln. “It was not about the money at all.
He was a productive citizen before, and he would have been again.
Geri Green, attorney for family of the late Robert St. Jovite
“Without the lawsuit, this would have all just been shoved under the carpet, and that’s exactly what the people who run the prisons wanted. I was upset about what was going on all the time he was in there.”
A spokesman for the corrections department issued a brief, emailed statement on the settlement.
“Our department is satisfied that this case is settled,” Jeffrey Callison wrote in response to a request for comment.
Lemire, 73, was a weekly visitor at her son’s prison, where he was a “three striker” being held on drug possession charges that, under today’s laws, would have allowed him to win release, according to the family’s San Francisco attorney, Geri Green.
St. Jovite was housed in an inmate mental health unit, since prison officials had determined he suffered from “paranoia, anxiety with panic attacks and depression.” In addition, he was often in excruciating pain from intestinal and liver afflictions.
On the day St. Jovite committed suicide, prison officials ordered back-to-back staff meetings of two guard shifts, removing all guards from his floor for 3½ hours and leaving only a handful of officers in guard towers and control booths, according to court papers.
While the guards were gone, St. Jovite tied a bed sheet to a grill in the ceiling of his cell and hanged himself, according to documents filed in the family’s lawsuit. St. Jovite’s cellmate woke from a nap and found him. He cut him down and called for help.
Two guards responded but failed to provide CPR until outside emergency medical personnel arrived, according to court documents.
At the time St. Jovite died, and in the years since, the state has struggled to develop effective ways to reduce California’s inmate suicide rate. The prison system was – and still is – under the supervision of federal judges because of questions about the constitutionality of health care provided to inmates, including the mentally ill.
In 2012, six years after St. Jovite’s death, an inmate died from suicide roughly every 11 days in state prisons, according to reports filed in Sacramento federal court in June by the court-appointed special master. It is the latest such report available analyzing suicides in the prisons.
“In 2012, the rate of suicides among CDCR inmates continued to significantly exceed the national average rate for federal and state prisoner suicides,” says the report written by Dr. Kerry C. Hughes of Atlanta, a nationally recognized expert on the care of mentally ill prisoners who was retained by the special master.
Paying particular attention to the 18 suicides in the last half of 2012, Hughes found that 61 percent of them were preventable. And he said rigor mortis had already set in when 38.8 percent of the bodies were found, which means they had remained undiscovered for two to four hours.
Corrections officials say they’ve since made major strides in suicide prevention by keeping closer tabs on inmates and keeping suicide tools out of their hands. The state’s prison population has also been reduced dramatically – partly because of more lenient sentencing laws – and the system was ahead of schedule in meeting the judges’ orders that it cut the number of prisoners to 137.5 percent of design capacity.
So far this year, 19 inmates have killed themselves in California prisons, according to the corrections department. That compares to 23 in 2014 and 30 in 2013.
“CDCR is committed to reducing the frequency of suicides within its institutions as much as reasonably possible, and its suicide prevention methods appear to be having a positive impact,” the corrections department’s Callison said in an emailed response to questions about the state’s efforts.
Department reports list a variety of new precautions, including a suicide risk assessment done when each person enters the system, a suicide prevention pocket guide for employees and a requirement that inmates in solitary confinement and units for the mentally ill be observed continuously.
Not everyone agrees that there is progress.
Our department is satisfied that this case is settled.
Jeffrey Callison, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
“We had hoped that this lawsuit would result in some repairs to the system so this won’t keep happening,” said Green, who steered the St. Jovite case through more than seven years of litigation. “But what happened? The answer is ‘nothing.’ ”
In her lawsuit, Lemire argued that her son’s suicide may have been preventable, and that had he lived he might very well be out of prison and earning a living.
St. Jovite grew up in Marin County and worked for years as a mechanic in an automotive repair shop his father, Gerard, owned. He also struggled with drug addiction, and he was sentenced to prison in 1989 for residential burglary, Green said.
In 1991, after undergoing drug rehabilitation while in custody, he was released and went back to work in the shop for eight years, managing the business and its finances until he relapsed in 1999 and was arrested for possession of about 5 grams of methamphetamine.
St. Jovite was sentenced to 25 years to life under what was then the nation’s toughest “three strikes” law. His first strike, 20 years before, was also for residential burglary, Green said.
“He, like many other low-level offenders sentenced under the three-strikes law, (committed) suicide after the state failed to recall the three-strikes laws,” Green said.
By 2012, California voters’ views were evolving on crime, and the state’s overcrowded prisons had become a widely publicized cause of unconstitutional health care for inmates. A three-strikes reform initiative passed that year, reducing sentences for inmates whose most recent strike was not a violent or serious felony.
Two years later, voters went further, approving Proposition 47, which reduced several crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The result of those votes meant that St. Jovite’s 1989 conviction and his methamphetamine case would have been converted to misdemeanors, and he would have been out of prison no later than last Jan. 1, Green said.
Lemire and Green said St. Jovite would have been welcomed back to the repair shop once owned by his father, who sold it after his son went to prison on what amounted to a life sentence. They said he was a valued asset at the shop, so skilled at repairing vehicle air conditioners that every dealership in San Rafael sent their cars in need of such repairs to him.
To CDCR officials and their attorneys, however, “he was worthless,” Green said. “The state actually took the position that he had been in prison so many years that his knowledge of cars had lapsed and he wasn’t employable. That just wasn’t true. During the years he was gone, air conditioning in cars had not changed.
“He was a productive citizen before, and he would have been again.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189
Suicides in California prisons
2015: 19 (to date)