San Diego Senator's bill would strengthen oversight at county jails

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The high rates of deaths in San Diego County jails have been raising concerns for the past few years, so much so, lawmakers are now cracking down.

Our county has maintained the highest jail mortality rate in the state for years, according to a state audit released early this year.

Frustrated with these numbers, San Diego Senator Toni Atkins is looking to pass SB 519. If passed, it would create a special state monitor to investigate in-custody deaths and audit inadequate healthcare practices. It would also require sheriff's departments to release internal investigative records related to in-custody deaths.

Eighteen inmates died in the San Diego County jail system in 2021. In 2022, 19 died. So far this year, there have been 11 in-custody deaths. Left behind are countless distraught families.

"All those years, I never figured that this would happen," A.C. Mills said. Mills’s son Kevin died in November 2020 while in isolation in county jail.

"That was so devastating. That became the heartbreak for our whole family," he said.

Mills believes his son's history of mental illness played a role in his death, which the county Medical Examiner attributed to heart failure.

"I said, 'What medication are you giving him?' I said, 'These are the medications he needs to control his bipolar.' He said, ‘Well we’re not giving him that,’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you back,’ and they never called me back," Mills recounted.

To make matters worse, Mills said he was not able to get any medical records for his son until a year after his death.

Mills and advocates of the bill say SB 519 would require jail operators to be more transparent.

"The transparency part will allow families to see what has happened to their loved one in a timely manner," explained Yusef Miller, executive director of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition. Miller has worked with Senator Atkins to move the bill along.

"If the sheriff's department is not doing its job in the county, someone else needs to step in and take over," Miller said.

The bill has been approved by the Assembly and now goes to the Senate for final approval before heading to Governor Gavin Newsom's desk. For families like the Mills, it’s a sliver of hope.

"Other families won't have to deal with what we’re dealing with," Mill said.

In a statement to NBC 7, Senator Atkins wrote in part:

"We have to do better so that people are not languishing or dying in jails, and this legislation is one solution that can help us achieve that goal.”

NBC 7 also reached out to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for comment on the bill, to which a spokesperson replied:

“We are watching it as it continues through the process. We are committed to providing the highest quality healthcare and services to people in our custody.”

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