By REBEKAH KEARN
San Diego County has the highest rate of suicides in large jail systems in California, which has the highest jail suicide rate in the nation, plaintiff’s attorney Danielle Pena told Courthouse News.
Seventeen people have killed themselves since 2014, seven so far this year. In contrast, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Sacramento Counties reported one suicide each, while Orange County reported none, according to a Huffington Post database of jail deaths.
Pena has several wrongful death cases stemming from inmate suicides in San Diego’s jail system.
“They are all strikingly similar, with family warnings and trigger signs that all went unnoticed,” she said in an interview. “The real issue is that there is not an adequate policy on how to evaluate inmates with mental health conditions during intake.”
These failures in policy and training mean mentally ill inmates often end up in inadequate housing, where they languish alone in need of medical care, Pena said.
“They [the jail system] can’t stop everyone from committing suicide, but they can stop those that are showing signs. Just because they are inmates doesn’t mean their lives are worth less,” Pena said.
The case of Jason Nishimoto, who hanged himself at the Vista Detention Facility, highlights the worst of the worst, Pena said.
Jason, 44, a paranoid schizophrenic, managed his condition through medication for decades until a few months before he died, when the side effects became unbearable. He suffered suicidal ideation and tried to kill himself twice. His mother, Rochelle Nishimoto, committed him to Tri County Medical Center, where his medical records indicated a history of self-harm attempts, according to his mother’s lawsuit against the county.
When his family tried to intervene in a third suicide attempt, Jason attacked his brother and was arrested by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and charged with assault. Upon his arrest, his family told the officers about Jason’s history of mental illness and prior suicide attempts.
After a short stay in the hospital, Jason was booked into the Vista jail, where his mother told a psychiatric nurse about his condition and need for medication. The nurse promised to expedite a referral to a doctor, but told her that Jason’s medication would likely not be approved because it was too expensive.
Despite knowing about Jason’s history of self-harm, the jail put him in administrative segregation instead of a safety cell or on suicide watch, and did not give him his medication for three days. On his second night in jail, he was found hanging from an air vent with a noose made from a bed sheet.
Nishimoto sued the county on Aug. 5 in Federal Court, claiming the jail did not follow its own protocols due in part to being understaffed on the weekends and from the jail staff’s deliberate indifference to Jason’s mental health.
U.S. District Judge Robert Benitez upheld most of Nishimoto’s claims on Nov. 4.
Attorney Pena applauded the ruling.
“What we’re seeing is that courts are zoning in on an overall apathy from jails toward inmates. The courts are not turning a blind eye; they see there is a real issue here,” she said.
County spokesman Michael Workman said in an email that the county does not comment on pending litigation.
The county claimed that Nishimoto did not allege sufficient facts of constitutional violations, but Benitez noted that the Ninth Circuit has recognized suicidal ideation as a serious medical condition that guarantees inmates the right to adequate treatment.
The county found more relief in claims that it did not properly train its employees in identifying and treating suicidal inmates. Though Nishimoto was not required to provide specific verdicts to allege a pattern of similar constitutional violations, she did not allege specific facts about other suicides, such as whether they were similar in circumstance to Jason’s suicide or whether they occurred at the Vista facility, to support her claim, Benitez wrote.
Though public entities such as jails are usually immune from liability for injuries caused by or to a prisoner, this does not apply if the entity’s employee knew or had reason to know that a prisoner needed immediate medical care but did not do anything to provide such care, Benitez wrote.
Since the jail nurse contacted Nishimoto about Jason’s medications and other medical needs, but did not ensure he received his medication or was placed in a safety cell where he would be observed every 15 to 30 minutes, the county’s arguments for immunity fail, Benitez said.
The judge also rejected the county’s motion to strike references to a pattern of jail suicides and comparisons to other California jail systems as inadmissible hearsay, finding that such an alleged pattern “raises an element of doubt as to whether the allegations might be an issue in this action.”