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State audit blasts San Diego Sheriff’s Department for high number of deaths in custody

Jails in San Diego County have the highest rate of death on any jail system in the state.

(CN) — A report by the California state auditor released on Thursday found that the San Diego Sheriff's Department has "failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in its custody."

Between 2006 to 2020, a total of 185 inmates died while in custody at one of seven detention facilities in San Diego, according to the report. That's more than in nearly every other county in the state, with the exception of Los Angeles County, which typically has more than three times as many prisoners in its jail system. San Diego County has by far the highest rate of death amongst its jail population (as measured by the number of deaths divided by the average daily jail population).

Last year was even more deadly, with 18 deaths in San Diego jails, a 15-year high. That also happened to be a year when its average daily jail population shrank dramatically.

"The San Diego Sheriff's Department now has the uniquely shameful distinction of running jails so bad and so dangerous that they require the state Legislature to intervene," said Julia Yoo, an attorney representing two different families suing the county over conditions in jail. "The state auditor's findings echo what the media, the public, the grand juries and various experts and consultants have been telling the county for a decade: their steadfast refusal to accept responsibility and change their dangerous policies and practices have caused needless deaths."

More than half of the 185 deaths were from natural causes. The 126-page report puts some of the blame for these deaths on the Sheriff's Department itself, for not providing "prompt lifesaving measure to unresponsive individuals." It also faults deficiencies in the jail system's health care and its intake processes, which often fails to identify inmates with "serious medical or mental health needs."

"Some of these individuals died within four days of their arrest," the report reads. "In one case we reviewed, an incident between two cellmates resulted in one’s death. In this instance, the intake nurse did not identify that the perpetrator had a history of mental health issues. Had the perpetrator’s mental health issues been identified properly at intake, the department’s staff might have placed this individual in a different cell, leading to a different outcome."

The jail system has an especially high suicide rate, with 52 inmates having killed themselves between 2006 and 2020. Orange County, by comparison, which has a slightly higher average daily prison population, had 14 suicides during that same time.

"One individual urgently requested mental health services shortly after entering the jail," the report reads. "However, the nurse had not identified any significant mental health issues at intake and determined that the individual did not qualify for an immediate appointment. The individual died by suicide two days later — only four days after entering the jail."

The state auditor also found that sheriff's deputies often perform only cursory safety checks, or "bed checks." As a result, guards "did not realize several individuals had died until hours afterward."

The report includes a slew of recommendations, including new state laws that provide greater oversight over jails and set consistent policies regarding bed checks. It recommends that mental health professionals be put in charge of mental health evaluations, and that intake screenings be revised to include "a mental health acuity level rating."

In a press release issued on Thursday, the San Diego Sheriff's Department said it supported many of the recommendations in the audit. "They also align with our existing practices, current and future plans, as well as proactive efforts to continuously improve health care services and the safety of our jails."

The statement added: "These recommendations will require substantial investment in the existing jail system."

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