Shortly after 5 p.m. on May 2, 2011, an inmate at California State Prison, Solano, was found dead in his cell, hanging from the upper bunk, a torn bed sheet around his neck.
The inmate, who was approaching his 65th birthday, had spent much of his life bouncing in and out of prison. Four hours earlier, he had an eight-minute phone conversation with his mother, and ended it by telling her he loved her.
After his death, officials found a note to his mother atop his belongings.
"Mom I am so very sorry that I am a selfish and inconsiderate piece of garbage," it read. " ... Thank you for loving me thru all these years. I been here much too long and I am so tired of my stoopidity." (sic)
The dead man, who is identified in federal court papers as "Inmate HH," is one of 437 inmates since 1999 ruled to have committed suicide in a state prison.
Together, those suicides are now a focal point in a fierce legal fight between state officials and inmate advocates over whether California is ready to once again control its own prisons.
Eighteen years after a federal court found that the mental health care inside state prisons was grossly substandard and a major factor in inmate suicides, California will return to a Sacramento courtroom March 27 to argue that the problems have been solved.
"Our suicide rate is less than the general population, less than federal prisons," Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee this month. "In fact, few countries in the world can match our numbers.
"The money we're spending to defend ourselves in court could be spent on rehabilitation programs for inmates, where it's really needed."
Brown publicly proclaimed in January that years of effort by state prison officials finally had solved the mental health care and overcrowding problems plaguing the state's 33 adult prisons, and that he wanted control returned to the state and court oversight terminated.
The state says it has spent millions of dollars building mental hospitals and attendant facilities, buying suicide-resistant beds, hiring psychiatrists and training staff.
In the months since Brown's proclamation, the legal back and forth has devolved into all-out guerrilla warfare.
Thousands of pages of pleadings, declarations and experts' depositions have been filed in recent weeks by both sides, including reports and depositions from prominent psychiatrists and prison officials from around the country.
The state contends that lawyers for the inmates and a court-appointed special master in the class-action lawsuit on behalf of mental health patients are prolonging the case to line their pockets.
Attorneys for the inmates deny that accusation and say conditions inside the prisons are still woefully inadequate, contributing to high suicide rates.
Last week, the special master, Matthew A. Lopes Jr., filed his latest suicide report in federal court, concluding that the numbers remain high because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has refused to adopt recommendations for reform advocated since at least 1999.
"It is absolutely unacceptable that such recommendations have not been implemented and realized by CDCR," Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, a nationally known suicide expert and a member of the special master's team, wrote in papers filed Wednesday.
"No matter how many times these recommendations are reiterated, they continue to go unheeded, year after year, while suicides among CDCR inmates continue unabated, and worsening, as manifested by suicide rates that inch ever higher over the past several years."
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