“While we don’t expect 100 percent, it should be at least in the 90s. This is life and death, for heaven’s sake,” Bien said. Previous prison policy let guards wait for medical staff to arrive: “You could choose not to help someone who was dying at your feet,” Bien said. California officials have balked at replacing overhead air vents in segregation units with vent covers that have smaller openings to prevent inmates from stringing sheets or cords to hang themselves. The department says the smaller vents would restrict air flow, while the inmates’ attorneys say the vents are used in hundreds of prisons, including the California Men’s Colony and Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally mentally ill. Inmate attorneys are also objecting to prison proposals to reduce the amount of mental health supervision provided in segregation units. They hope a federal judge will order a hearing into a 3-year-old prison policy that treats mental illness as a security danger. The mentally ill are often sent to more secure prisons where they are housed with violent inmates and are more frequently locked in their cells with fewer privileges and amenities. A special master appointed by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton is set to soon release a report on the corrections department’s decision two years ago to stop stationing a guard outside the cells of each one or two suicide-risk inmates. Now, guards monitor as many as six inmates at a time via television cameras in the cells, which Bien said is far from foolproof and prevents the human contact that could help deter suicides. Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, who chairs two corrections oversight committees, criticized prison officials for failing to adopt what she called “no brainer” precautions. The Democrat from Los Angeles plans hearings this month. Bien blamed the prison system’s swelling population and understaffing for the increase in suicides. More general population inmates are locked in their cells for longer periods without significant activities, so their conditions more closely approximate those of inmates in disciplinary segregation who are most likely to take their own lives, he said. The court’s special master is preparing a year-end report calling for the prison system to increase spending on mental health staff and services. The state recently hired Thomas White, a former federal prisons official who now consults on inmate suicide prevention, to help find the cause of the increase and to suggest improvements. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! SACRAMENTO – A record number of convicts killed themselves in California prisons during 2005 – double the national inmate suicide rate, according to state records. The trend approaching one suicide each week is triggering new complaints from class-action lawyers that the state is stalling prevention efforts. Prison officials deny delays, saying they thwart the vast majority of suicide attempts. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 44 suicides in an inmate population that is at an all-time high – nearly 164,000 – though inmates’ attorneys have so far been able to confirm only 41 deaths as suicides. Either figure is up from 26 suicides in 2004, and exceeds the previous record of 36 deaths in 2003. Using the more conservative estimate, the rate is 27 deaths per 100,000 inmates, compared with a national rate of 14 per 100,000 calculated by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That rate is falling nationally even as California’s rate increases. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives puts the nationwide prison suicide rate at about 13 deaths per 100,000, compared to 11 deaths per 100,000 in the general community. Seventy percent of inmate suicides in California occur in disciplinary isolation units, which reported an astronomical rate of 248 suicides per 100,000 inmates in 2004. “We try to be there and vigilant,” said corrections spokesman J.P. Tremblay. “It’s always a tragedy when anybody commits suicide, but we’re working hard to try to prevent that. We have made some progress, but it’s not going to happen overnight.” Lawyers representing more than 26,000 mentally ill inmates in California are heading back to a Sacramento federal judge Thursday, accusing the state of not training guards quickly enough to provide emergency resuscitation when inmates are found unresponsive. Some prisons have trained fewer than half their guards, said Michael Bien, the lead attorney. Prison attorneys say most have trained at least 75 percent of guards, and many are above 90 percent.