On December 26, 2008, Armando Cruz was admitted to Mercy Hospital of Folsom following an attempted self-castration. He had “wrapped strips of sheets/shirts around base of scrotum and has been tightening them over the past three days because ‘I am on a mission,’” according to a Clinical Report by a physician who examined him.

Cruz would go on to say that he did it “to prove he was tougher then the voices.”

Housed alone in the PSU, he would participate in few groups.  However, no disciplinary issues are noted in his documentation. On February 5, 2009, his custody was reduced from Max to Close Custody. His SHU term was suspended and he was allowed to participate in EOP Programming, which included more social interaction.

He would remain disciplinary free throughout much of 2009.

He was transferred back to Salinas Valley State Prison, being placed back in the Department of Mental Health, on September 29, 2009.  The goal was to make him competent to stand trial for the January 18, 2008 incident in which he bit an officer. Within a month, on October 16, he would be cited for possession of dangerous contraband.

Two months later, he would participate in his first, and only, parole board hearing. The parole board noted that “Cruz has not been released from Discretionary Program Status (DPS) due to his erratic behavior and therefore, has not participated in any group activities.” The board also indicated that Cruz had spent some time before the board emphasizing that he wished to stay away from the El Cajon Dukes, a gang he had claimed he was a member of since his arrest, a claim his mother disputes.

On February 2, 2010, the board would deny parole for seven years, telling him he needed to stay disciplinary free and that he had not yet taken full responsibility for his actions.

Cruz would remain at Close Custody security until December 2010.

His mother believes that quietly, Cruz was agonizing over his February parole denial. “He thought that he would serve 8 years and come home,” she says.

He would have a cellmate for most of 2010, and remained relatively discipline free. In May 2010, he was transferred to Vacaville, at the California Medical Facility.

On July 27, 2010, a Department of Mental Health/Vacaville Psychiatric Program Discharge Summary indicated that he remained incompetent to stand trial. Quoting a court ordered psychological evaluation, the Discharge Summary reads “it was noted he has made some improvement since his last evaluation in that he is now aware of the charges against him whereas previously he was not…he is still experiencing psychotic and manic symptoms which interfere with his ability to be an effective participant in his own defense.”

Further, the report indicates that the nature of Cruz’s diagnosis of schizophrenia “often leads the patient to misinterpret reality and engage in behavior which may be dangerous to him or others. It is therefore recommended that the patient be transferred to a facility that can continue to provide further mental healthcare within a safe environment.”

The Discharge Summary cites a visit by family—his mother and his sister.  He was reportedly “overjoyed on account of that” and indicated his desire to be “placed at a facility which could be closer to his family.” This would be the last contact visit. The last time that Cruz was able to hug and kiss his family.

At this time, Cruz was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, bipolar type. He also was noted to have hypothyroidism.

He would be discharged back to Salinas Valley State Prison, and then was sent back to CSP, Sacramento in the EOP program.  The assault charge against him would be dropped in favor of administrative measures.

On September 27, he was admitted to the Mental Health Crisis Unit due to having bruising on his neck.  According to a Mental Health Interdisciplinary Progress Note, “He reports (vaguely) a psychotic episode in which he was feeling tremendous pain in his neck and put his hands around his neck to stop the pain, causing bruising.”

In October, he was again admitted to the Mental Health Crisis Unit for “self-abuse by choking himself out.” It was noted that he has “chronic thoughts of impending doom and an internal feeling of senselessness…which he explains as a perception that everything in the world is dull and boring.”

While there, two psychologists evaluated him by request of the Mental Health Crisis Bed Interdisciplinary Treatment Team. Cruz was noted to have a fourth grade reading ability and indicated that a neurological examination might be necessary to determine if Cruz’s frequent self-asphyxiation has caused any brain injury. His attention was found to be in the “Profound Impairment” range. His memory, language, and executive functioning were also noted to be impaired.

On November 26, while out on a yard, he “committed the act of Battery on a Peace Officer Resulting in a Use of Force. Armando slapped at Correctional Officer R. Miranda’s face while he was crossing the main yard,” reads an Institutional Classification document. He was placed in the Administrative Segregation Unit and assigned to the Walk Alone yard. One month later, this determination was that Cruz would receive 180 days in the ASU. He would be allowed to have a cellmate, which he would have from December until April 2011.

The Final Year

By January, Cruz was taking several medications. Divalproex (anti-convulsant), lithium (mania), benzatropine (to counter antipsychotic medication effects), promazine (antipsychotic), propranolol (beta blocker), and risperdal (antipsychotic).

In January 27 he told a mental health worker “I’ve been slacking off with the groups some. I go to some. I went to only one group this week…I haven’t seen the Dr. about the Risperdal. I still get the same amount. She was supposed to stop it. I don’t care. I have all kinds of moods today.” He also reported a reduction in hallucinations.

In March, he was allowed a visit from his mother. Behind glass, they saw each other for the last time. Phone privileges were taken away and for his final months, his only contact with his family would be through letters.

On March 26, he was observed “anxiously tossing his bedding around and acting irrationally.” When guards inspected his cell, he was found to have “a piece of metal approximately 5 inches in length attached to a toothbrush with plastic wrap.” Cruz admitted, “It was mine, I was hearing voices.”  For this, he would be placed in Administrative Segregation. He would spend his final six months in solitary confinement.

On April 4, Senior Psychologist M.L. Hoffman, in writing about the weapon incident, remarked that “his behavior and thinking at the time of the incident were likely sufficiently disorganized that he does not accurately recall nature or quality of his actions.”

At some point in April, he began to talk about an imaginary friend named Michelle in his cell. “I see and hear things. I feel all alone in my cell. I created my own kid…We say we’re going to chop your arm off. If you told me I would be immortal, I don’t want to be in a coffin. I want to go home. I want to go to the hospital and kick it. I think it is like a dragon. A thought is just a thought for me.”

On April 18, he reported sleeping between two and six hours a night. “I would rather have a celli. I like to be alone but I liked to have a celli at times. I’m talking about a parallel universe…I have weird dreams. My dreams are very emotional. Demons tell me what. I listen because I want to tell them to shut up,” he is reported to have said.

“I’m kicking back with Michelle,” he told a mental health worker on April 28. A suicide risk document written that day notes that he “appears to be decompensate with symptoms of mania, imaginary child, elevated mood, threatening to spit on staff, loud music from his cell, banging on the cell door and yelling at all hours and strange laughter at odd times.”

On April 29, a clinician asked to see his neck to check for bruises. He “became abruptly engaged and began yelling at this clinician. He said, ‘You’re really stupid and dumb. Get the fuck out of here bitch!’ He attempted to spit on this clinician and several custody officers that arrived ten minutes later….he continued yelling loudly ‘You fucking smelly ass bitch! If you treat people like that, you’re going to get fucked up!”

For this he would continue to remain in solitary, as well as lost  of any appliances, phone privileges, personal property, and access to the prison canteen to buy things.

He would be placed in a suicide watch unit from April 29 until May 10. He would be checked every fifteen minutes. According to these records, he would spend most of his time pacing his cell, laying down, and standing still.

On May 9, he became irate after an officer came to pick up his empty breakfast tray. “Speech became rapid, loud and pressured, rambling, very hostile and Armando did not want to take his medications, swearing non-stop and he remained on spit net status. Was placed in holding cell for time to calm down,” reads a mental health document.

Cruz would be ordered back to the Psychiatric Services Unit on June 7, 2011. He was single celled and assigned to the Walk Alone Yard.

On July 7, a Psychiatrist Progress Note indicated that he was taking Risperdal, lithium, Inderal (for blood pressure/tremors), and Prozac (depression). According to the note, “he was cagey about discussing [auditory and visual hallucinations. Feels people plot against him.”

An interdisciplinary note the same day indicates that Cruz was participating in his assigned groups, and particularly liked one that had to do with anger management.

There is no clear record of his final two months. The few records available indicate that he was issued a rules violation report (RVR) for an assault involving a correctional officer, the details of which are not currently available, on August 31 a date on which he was noted to be agitated in a health document. The initial inmate death report, dated 09/21/2011, indicated that his last assessment by a mental health worker was on September 9th.  The report indicated that receiving the RVR may have precipitated the suicide.

His mother reports having received letters from Armando. Contained were references to his imaginary family that he believed lived with him in his cell? In the months leading up to his death, he wrote “I wish I could see you guys, I miss you so much” and frequently told his family that he loved them.

“He knew for a long time that he was going to take his life,” his mother says. “After the parole rejection, he lost hope. He thought he was going to come home.”

Armando Cruz’s September 20, 2011 suicide was the culmination of a decade in California’s corrections facilities.

Over thirty other California inmates committed suicide the same year as Armando. At least two others that Solitary Watch has reported on died amidst mental health crises. Johnny Owen Vick, who had spent time in segregation units and had a history of mental health issues, committed suicide on September 16, 2011. On October 24, 2011, Alex Machado committed suicide following a year of increasingly psychotic mental health problems while held in the isolation units of Pelican Bay State Prison.

According to Amnesty International, between 2006 and 2010, there was an average of 34 suicides in the California prison system a year, with 42% occurring in solitary confinement units.

As far back as 1890, the US Supreme Court Samuel Miller in re Medley wrote of solitary confinement: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

In 2001, federal judge William Wayne Justice, writing as part of the case Ruiz v Johnson, found that “[Solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses–seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”

The evidence of the serious harm that prolonged solitary confinement has been heavily documented over a century. This has been especially true of inmates who have been institutionally determined to be “mentally ill” and a “danger to self.” Despite this, Armando Cruz, like 80,000 others in prisons across the country, was subjected to isolation for months at a time. Cruz, who entered the prison system with a long record of severe mental health problems and a history of self-harm, was placed in isolation typically for actions committed during clear mental health crisis episodes. In isolation, Cruz ruminated, choked himself, and hallucinated a family. It was in this bleak environment that he died.

His mother demands answers. “He loved and valued his family, his church, his life. It was the system that killed him. Why did the system fail my only son?”

“Until the day I die, I will tell my son’s story to see to it that there are changes to this broken system, so that no other family should ever have to suffer the great loss my family and I has endured and suffered. To see that no other man or women is treated as poorly as my brave heart Armando suffered. No one paid attention to my son’s cries. To see that once and for all, the system does away with Solitary Confinement, and hears the cries of all the mentally ill. And to see that the [needs of the] severely mentally ill are addressed through continuity of care…to be given a chance to rehabilitate and have closer placements to their immediate family because in my son’s case he did better when he was able to see us more often. Love heals everything.”

Individuals who would like to get in touch with Yolanda Cruz are encouraged to send an email to this author of this article  sal_solitaryw@yahoo.com. The author would like to acknowledge Dolores Canales, of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, for bringing this case to Solitary Watch’s attention. 

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