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L.A. County May Create Jail Unit to Prevent Suicide by Mentally Ill

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Two decades ago, the federal Department of Justice concluded that Los Angeles County provides inadequate suicide prevention and mental health services to mentally ill prisoners -- and the problem may not be much better today.

According to a DOJ statement from last summer, the county has not addressed these problems and continues to fall below federal standards. In a 30-month period covering 2012, 2013, and part of 2014, 15 inmates committed suicide that "may have been preventable with proper suicide prevention practices," according to DOJ documents.

In light of the DOJ report, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is proposing to create a unit of experts who will ensure the county can improve conditions in its jails. Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion to do this on October 7 but it was continued until January 27, said a spokeswoman for the supervisor.

The ACLU of Southern California's Peter Eliasberg, who helped author a study on mental illness in Los Angeles jails, said he believes a special unit could help the county improve conditions, but offered the following caveat: "I hope the spirit of the motion and the approach that is taken is not a defensive how-do-we-get-out-of-this-and-beat-litigation, but that this is a big problem and it's been going on for years, so what do we do about it?"

This issue dates back to a 1996 DOJ investigation, which lead to a 2002 agreement between the county and the federal government that L.A. would address the problems in its jails. 13 years hence, the county hasn't made good on the agreement.

According to the DOJ, the county has made strides, but "serious systemic deficiencies remain with regard to some aspects of the Jails' mental health program." The county still regularly violates the constitutional rights of prisoners, according to the justice department. During the period from 2012-2014 when 15 prisoners committed suicide, there were 366 suicide "incidents" -- a vaguely defined term that likely includes suicide attempts.

The DOJ acknowledges that the problems may not rest entirely with the county jails -- that many mentally ill prisoners are probably in jail because they have been "failed by other systems." The department encourages the county to get mentally ill prisoners out of jail if they can be supervised elsewhere safely.

Eliasberg concurs. "Corrections is not a place people that people go to get well," he said.

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