By Alfred King, Journalism Guild Writer
San Diego County Jails reported 140 inmate deaths since 2009, exceeding any other county in the state. That was the same year Sheriff Bill Gore took over.
It averages one inmate death per month for a decade. Causes included dying of natural causes, such as chronic health conditions, drug overdosing, suicide and murder, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Gore’s command staff say they do everything to identify and treat mentally ill inmates.
The tally included 10 homicides since 2009, the Sept. 20 story said.
The newspaper conducted a six-month investigation that revealed the county jail’s mortality rate is the highest in California, with no signs of easing.
Critics claim not enough is being done, like installing fencing to prevent suicidal inmates from jumping or increasing its mental health staff, the story said.
The department has made a few improvements, changing healthcare providers, purchasing new equipment, noted the Union-Tribune.
One case involved a young man who repeatedly threatened to commit suicide and had access to a plastic bag and used it to suffocate himself after being found earlier in the day with a noose in his cell.
Another death was a 34-year-old with a serious heart condition given the wrong medication and complained of having problems breathing.
Over the past decade the county has paid out $19.9 million in legal settlements and attorney fees, reported the article.
“A measure of society is how we treat our most vulnerable; by that measure, San Diego County is failing miserably,” said attorney Julia Yoo, who has successfully sued the county on behalf of deceased inmates’ families.
Most of the deaths that have occurred have been attributed to natural causes; autopsy reports, however, indicate most of those deaths could have been prevented if inmates were given proper medical care, noted the article.
Records also show that multiple inmates died from treatable conditions like diabetes, pneumonia and stomach ulcers.
In comparison, Los Angeles County’s jail system is three times larger than San Diego’s and had a death count of 158.
In one homicide case a 70-year-old mentally ill man was beaten to death by a larger inmate nicknamed “Evil,” who called upon four other inmates to join in the attack. Deputies had recently moved the man from protective custody into the general population despite orders to keep him segregated for his own protection, the story said.
The sheriff has implemented changes to improve the conditions of the jails such as a suicide prevention program, a video-based telepsychiatry program, and enhanced observation housing.
Inmates placed in the enhanced observation section are given tear-proof smocks and blankets and sleep on mats or bunks that have been modified, all with little success, the story reported. By the end of 2015, six more inmates had killed themselves; in 2016, five more, and at least six more since 2017.
Disability Rights California issued a report stating the jail system is in crisis. It said: “There is an extensive public record documenting the tragic loss of lives, systemic failures and inadequacy of oversight. Families of those who have died have filed lawsuits alleging that the county and jail staff acted with deliberate indifference to inmates serious mental health, medical health and related needs.”
Recommendations have come from outside consultants and the county grand jury.
Attorney Eugene Iredale, who was one of those suing the county, said San Diego’s elected officials have short-term thinking when it comes to providing inmate health care.
“The county has been trying to do things on the cheap, instead of hiring good doctors at a good salary with institutional memories, they contract out,” said Iredale.” If you look at the settlements and legal cost, they’re not getting a bargain; they’re buying liability that comes with substandard care.”