When a person starts to serve a sentence in a California prison, depression and despair are leading causes for a mental health crisis. Feeling abused and isolated are added factors.
Salinas Valley State Prison recorded the highest number of suicides during a 10-year period, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). San Quentin was a close second. The records show that from 2014 through 2019, suicides in state prisons rose steadily.
With that insight, San Quentin mental health professionals took action. On Sept. 9, the prison’s Lower Yard was a place for talking about how to improve wellness at the Mental Health Awareness event.
Dr. E. Anderson, Psy.D, is San Quentin’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator.
“CDCR has put a lot more emphasis on mental health,” Anderson said, referring to retrofitted cells and added crisis beds for prisoners who need a place to decompress after a challenging event.
A few days after the Lower Yard event, the preventative measures were tested. The cellmate of Michael “Mika” Mizuo, 56, attempted suicide.
Around midnight of Sept. 14, Mizuo noticed a serious problem with his cellmate. He immediately called “man down” to get help from the correctional officers.
After the ordeal, Mizuo was given the opportunity to talk to a mental health clinician. The clinician told Mizuo what he did saved his cellmate’s life.
“I think that this whole experience showed me what a victim really goes through because I had to deal with the traumatic effects of my cellie trying to commit suicide,” Mizuo said. “I hope that what I did gives him the chance to get the help that he needs.”
At the yard event, San Quentin’s Chief Psychiatrist Dr. Burton talked about what to do in case of a mental health challenge. He told prisoners that assistance is available — “24 hours, seven days a week.”
He said that if someone thinks their problem is “routine,” they could submit a sick call slip and a clinician should see them in about a week.
“If it’s ever at the point where it’s pressing, talk to the officer in your unit,” Burton said. He continued, if the problem seems “very serious, then call ‘man down’” and emergency treatment will be provided.
Anderson considered the COVID crisis, adding, “I think one of the most necessary things is to pay attention to where support is needed. San Quentin has a great crisis intervention team that does great work — if you let any staff member know that you’re in a crisis, and a team member will help you.”
Louis Light, 50, has been incarcerated for 26 years. He has spent the past 12 years in San Quentin.
He didn’t seek mental health help when he first got to San Quentin. He didn’t want to be thought of as a “head case, weirdo, or psych med-guy.”
“The first five years that I’ve been at San Quentin, I was depressed and lonely and I’d isolate myself,” Light said at the event.
Eventually, Light spoke to someone in an outpatient mental health program who encouraged him to enroll, too.
“The clinicians I talk to help me speak about what’s really hurting me inside and get rid of the shame and fear of people judging me,” Light said. He says being a part of the yard event is a way to be involved in the San Quentin community. “Instead of hiding, I’m encouraging guys to be a part of CCCMS (Correctional Clinical Case Management System). The stigma of CCCMS is a myth. It can change your life — it changed my life.”
CCCMS is an outpatient treatment program in which clinicians normally see patients every 90 days. However, psychology students from around the country provide additional treatment to prisoners under the Psychology Internship Program.
“It’s like a medical residency,” said A. Berendsen, Psy. D. “About 60 prisoners are getting weekly treatment from the program.”
Andress Yancy, 59, said that after a death in his family, he attempted suicide. He then enrolled in the CCCMS program. He said the program and religious beliefs taught him to have compassion for people.
“I’ve changed my life from being hurt and hurting people to being healed and helping to heal life,” Yancy said. “For me, it doesn’t matter if the person is incarcerated or a staff member. I’m there to help. The Mental Health Awareness event lets me give back to the community.”
Yancy is part of an incarcerated team of mental health service providers that include Light, Sergio Alvarez, Eric Rives, Stephen Pascascio, and Brian Asey.
“I used to have a stigma about mental health until I got to San Quentin and began to understand that mental health is just important as physical health,” Alvarez said. “It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of this program. Everybody needs somebody!”
Eric Rives, also a survivor of a suicide attempt, says he “now value(s) life and want(s) to help others and bring awareness to mental health.”
He says the number one benefit of the CCCMS program is that there is an open line of communication between patients and doctors.
Office Technicians Angelique Villasana and Tanisha Andre-Simmons coordinated with Pascascio to set up a small stage for a poetry reading by prisoners. Staffers from the substance abuse program participated by singing “Stand by Me.”
Easels displayed artwork.
Warren “Philly” Corley read a letter dedicated to Darrel Gautt, who died from COVID-19.
“Darrel was my friend — we miss him dearly,” Corley said. In tears, he read from a handwritten letter that praised Gautt’s life.
“He died the way he lived, with courage, joy, and giving people whatever was needed,” Corley read to prisoners and prison staffers.
A pamphlet was available for the incarcerated population to give to their friends and family in the free world. It contained information to set straight suicide myths and truths:
- You can’t stop people who want to kill themselves — false
- Most people who are suicidal do not really want to die, they just want their emotional pain to stop — true
- Talking about suicide will only make it worse — false
- Talking through feelings can help someone realize their need for help — true
- Telling a mental health professional that someone is talking about suicide is betraying their trust — false
- Helping someone in a time of need shows you care for and respect them — true
The pamphlet, A Guide for Family & Friends, provided a Mental Health Hotline: 916.691.1404