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208 inmates have died in county custody since 2006

By Miriam Raftery

Photo courtesy of Assemblymember Akilah Weber, M.D.

March 19, 2022 (San Diego) – A bipartisan group of San Diego state legislators have introduced AB 2345, the Saving Lives in Custody Act. The bill follows a scathing state auditor’s report which found conditions in San Diego County Jails to be so dangerous that the auditor urged legislative intervention.

San Diego has the highest number of jail deaths of any major county in California--185 from 2006 to 2020, the period the auditor examined. In 2021, another 18 men and women lost their lives in custody, with five deaths so far this year, bringing the total death toll since 2006 to 208.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Akilah Weber M.D., held a press conference yesterday joined by coauthors Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Assemblymember Chris Ward. Other local legislators coauthoring the measure are Senator Ben Hueso as well as Assembly members Brian Maienschein and Tasha Boerner Horvath.

“We believe a jail sentence should not be a death sentence and are doing something about it,” Dr. Weber posted on Facebook.  AB 2343 is currently in the Assembly Public Safety Committee awaiting a hearing date.

Also present at the press conference was A.C. Mills, whose son, Kevin Mills, died in a San Diego County jail in 2020. Mills says Sheriff’s employees knew about his son’s mental and medical health issues but did not do enough to get him the help that he needed. 

The bill, if approved, would add a licensed healthcare provider and a  licensed mental health provider to the Board of State and Community Corrections. The board would be required to develop and adopt regulations for standards of care for inmates with mental health issues, including training requirements for staff at correctional facilities, mental health screening, and requirements for safety checks of at-risk inmates.

The state audit found, among other things, that the Sheriff’s department failed to provide proper inmate care and frequently failed to conduct safety checks. The audit followed an in-depth investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune which revealed the shockingly high mortality rate in local jails compared to other major counties in the state.

Former Sheriff Bill Gore retired February 3, the same day that state auditors released their report to the public. Gore questioned the audit’s methodology. Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez has said she’s committed to making changes to protect inmates, yet the most recent two deaths occurred on her watch.

Lt. Amber Baggs told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the department’s officials are reviewing the legislation and have already taken some steps to make jails safer, including improving safety checks, adopting drug-treatment programs, speeding up review of critical incidents and having guards wear body-worn cameras to improve accountability.

The high number of jail deaths here has not only caused grief to family members, but has also resulted in taxpayers shelling out millions of dollars to pay legal settlements or court-ordered awards as a result of lawsuits filed against the county.

Lieutenant Joel Stranger provided the following information on the two most recent deaths:

Lonnie Newton Rupard, 49, of National City was found unresponsive in his cell at San Diego Central Jail on March 17.  Deputies and medical staff performed lifesaving measures until relieved by fire department personnel. Paramedics transported Rupard to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.  An autopsy found no signs of trauma or illegal substances; his cause of death remains pending further evaluation.  He had been arrested on December 19 on a parole violation; he had previously served time after being convicted of assault in 2019.

William Schuck, 22, of Orange County was found unresponsive in his cell in the San Diego Central Jail on March 16.  Despite lifesaving efforts, he was pronounced dead at the facility. He had been arrested March 10  after a traffic accident on charges of driving under the influence, possessing a controlled substance, and illegal weapons possession. He had been evaluated at a hospital after the accident but no obvious signs of trauma or illness were found and Schuck declined further tests. He was alone in his cell when found unconscious, with no obvious signs of trauma or foul play.  An autopsy found cocaine in his system, but the cause and manner of his death remain pending further lab testing and evaluation.


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