By Miriam Raftery
July 21, 2021 (San Diego) — Why does San Diego County have the highest rate of jail deaths of any other major California county? Local legislators hope to find out. On July 1st, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee approved a measure to ask California’s State Auditor to provide independently developed and verified information on inmate deaths in the custody of the San Diego Sheriff’s department.
The request for the audit was introduced by Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-San Diego) along with other members of the San Diego delegation including Assemblymembers Tasha Boerner-Horvath, Brian Maienschein, Christopher Ward, Lorena Gonzalez, Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, and Senator Ben Hueso.
“The approval of this audit request may provide answers to the many families who have lost loved ones while in the custody of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office,” said Assemblymember Weber. "A jail sentence should not be a de facto death sentence. We can use this opportunity to uncover the disparities of the department protocol so that we can implement better procedures for protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals.”
The California State Auditor estimates a seven-month timeframe to complete the report, according to a press release from Weber’s office.
San Diego County’s jail mortality is the highest among large counties in the State of California. In 2019, a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found that since 2009, at least 140 people died in County custody.
More have died since then. “More than 150 people have died in the custody of the San Diego Sheriff's department since 2009,” Genevieve Jones-Wright, founder of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, said at a press conference July 1 outside the Las Colinas detention facility in Santee. Yet another death was reported today by the Sheriff of an inmate found unresponsive in a jail cell at the George Bailey detention facility in Otay Mesa.
According to a report from Disability Rights California, there were 17 inmate suicide deaths from 2014-2016, which far outpaced other large California county jail systems. One of the audit objectives is to examine any wrongful deaths, including suicides, murders, and in-custody or in-transit deaths.
“The rate of suicide and deaths in San Diego County jails is alarming, particularly when comparing this to the rates of other state county jails,” said Assemblymember Maienschein (D-San Diego). Proper mental health care should be provided to all, inmates included. Any inadequate care being offered to San Diego County jail inmates must be improved immediately to prevent this disturbing level of suicides and deaths from continuing.”
"We have a duty to protect and care for people when they are taken into custody,” said Assemblymember Gonzalez (D-San Diego). “It’s critical that the circumstances around inmate deaths in San Diego County are thoroughly investigated so we can understand why this is happening and ensure the issues are corrected immediately.”
The scope of the audit will include a review of allegations from the past 15 years that lead to several wrongful death suits and determine the number of settlements and amounts as well as how settlement awards compare to similar settlements from other comparable counties in California. Further, the audit will determine which policies specified in settlement agreements or in grand jury recommendations have been implemented and which have not. As part of this determination, it will also identify whether the San Diego Sheriff has suspended, revoked, or amended any policies that were inconsistent with past settlement agreements or grand jury recommendations.
Additionally, the audit will evaluate the extent to which the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) has provided recommendations to the San Diego Sheriff regarding inmate safety and to followed up to determine whether the San Diego Sheriff has implemented those recommendations. The audit will also evaluate CLERB’s review of inmate death cases in 2017 and assess whether CLERB had sufficient staff and resources to perform its oversight role appropriately.
“I applaud the Joint Legislative Audit Committee’s decision to authorize an investigation into the alarming number of inmate deaths in San Diego County facilities,” said Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego). “The ongoing reports, and the community testimony at yesterday’s JLAC committee hearing, are disturbing and highlight the need for oversight and accountability. Our Sheriff’s Department is tasked with an important duty to care for those in custody, and I look forward to reviewing the work of the State Auditor to facilitate improvements.”
“Any public institution, whether it be a school, hospital, or a jail, has as a core obligation to keep those they serve safe, irrespective of how they got there,” said Assemblymember Boerner Horvath (D-San Diego). When an institution fails at that obligation, the only thing that can help correct that failure is a full, independent, and transparent accounting of what went wrong. That’s what this audit is all about – transparency.”
“In order for us to implement safe and effective change in our County jails, we must figure out what the problem is,” said Assemblymember Weber. “This is clearly a long-standing systemic issue that is finally receiving the attention it deserves. I look forward to reviewing the Auditor’s findings when the report is released.”
The Sheriff’s department did not oppose the action. During the hearing, Assistant Sheriff Erica Frierson, who heads the department’s detention services, testified that the department has done “rigorous review” and made “extensive improvements” to how it provides health care for inmates over the last five years. “If there is information offered through an external audit that brings improved care for the individuals in our custody, we welcome it,” Frierson added.