End to Judicial Oversight in State Prisons May Be Premature

Photo: Creative Commons/BearTruck2009 Photo: Creative Commons/BearTruck2009[/caption]

Special Master Matthew Lopes, a court-appointed monitor in California, has concerns with Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to put an end to judicial oversight in state prisons.

According the Los Angeles Times, Lopes said Brown’s request was “not only premature, but a needless distraction.”

Lopes filed his own report this past Friday, citing dozens of suicides last year in response to long periods of isolation as opposed to treatment of mental health issues head-on. This 609-page report was filed in response to Lopes’ visitation of over two-thirds of California prisons.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has received Lopes’ report, and a spokesperson claims the department will be issuing a response later.

The main issue Lopes aims to tackle is that Governor Brown wants to end judicial oversight of mental health services, as well as withdraw orders to prevent overcrowding. Brown recently publicly stated that California has “one of the finest prison systems in the country.” He further lauded that prisoners receive much better mental and medical healthcare than elsewhere in the country.

Obviously Lopes does not share this sentiment.

Last year, Lopes said that there were thirty-two suicides in California state prisons. That translates into almost twenty-four suicides per 100,00 inmates, which is thirteen-percent higher than the national high of sixteen suicides per 100,000 inmates.

This is an issue that has recently developed and increased In California prisons.

In the fall of 2011, Alex Machado and Johnny Owens Vick, both prisoners at the Pelican Bay solitary confinement unit, committed suicide. The two inmates had participated in a statewide hunger strike prior, staged to bring to light the fact that prison discipline policy requires identification of gang related prisoners. Prisoners claim that the policy punishes innocent, non-affiliated inmates, confining them in segregated units.

Prisoner advocacy groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Prison Solidarity Strike Coalition have found getting updates or information about prisoners has remained fairly difficult.

Machado and Vick participated in the hunger strike, but details surrounding their deaths were withheld from their family members and loved ones. As a punishment for their participation to the strike, access was limited to the inmates’ friends and loved ones.

The inmates’ families actually found out about their deaths via automated voice messages. Those who responded got very little feedback from the California Department of Corrections, though CPDC denied the inmate advocacy’s claim.

Since Jeffrey Beard has been appointed the new chief of California prisons, he comes in at a crucial time in Governor Brown’s cabinet. Their department is to take on the issue of inmate suicide, as well as prison overcrowding and early release dates for inmates. Reform in solitary confinement will be paramount to addressing this issue.