SDSO Says it Will Make Changes to Prevent Jail Deaths Following Scathing Calif Audit

The audit highlighted a lack of independent oversight and called on the state legislature to take action

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After a scathing report by the California State Auditor that said San Diego County Sheriff’s Department failed to prevent deaths at local jails, the County Board of Supervisors gathered to discuss the audit Tuesday.

From 2006 to 2020, 185 fatalities were reported in the seven detention centers SDSO oversees – among the highest total deaths in the state. The audit concluded there were inadequate safety checks by deputies and that many inmates did not receive timely medical and mental health care.

"The high rate of deaths in San Diego County's jails (as) compared to other counties raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff's Department's policies and practices," acting California State Auditor Michael Tilden wrote in an introductory open letter in the report addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders.

The audit highlighted a lack of independent oversight and called on the state legislature to take action "to ensure that the sheriff's department implements meaningful changes."

In response to the report, SDSO said it would make the following changes:

  • upgrade wireless systems at all county jails to connect to health care systems
  • all in-custody deaths to be reviewed internally and by a citizens review board. They will also be made public
  • body-worn cameras will be implemented at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Center
  • hands-on medical and mental health checks
  • upgrades to the George Bailey Detention Center

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday determined there isn’t much the board can do as far as regulating sheriff's department policy, but they can support any legislation the state passes and voted unanimously to receive the auditor's analysis.

Supervisor Joel Anderson said the audit was a hallmark opportunity to make needed changes. When people are in custody, "we have a moral obligation to make sure they don't die," Anderson said. "We have greater challenges, and I'm glad this board is stepping up to those."

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher added that the county is working on a series of initiatives to improve inmate treatment, but said it also needs to hire and train more employees, and renovate jails to accommodate services such as mental health screening.

During a public comment period, the board heard from several county jail employees, who stressed that they need more help to ensure inmates get proper care.

The vote followed a presentation from State Auditor Michael Tilden, who told supervisors looked at 30 deaths, detailed case files and found a number of causes.

The review found deficiencies "with how the sheriff's department provides care for and protects incarcerated individuals (that) likely contributed to in-custody deaths." It alleged the sheriff's department jail staff didn't follow up with care for inmates who had previously requested or received it for medical or mental health needs.

"For example, one individual urgently requested mental health services shortly after entering the jail," it states. "However, (a) 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 audit was conducted at the behest of the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee after state legislators requested it last June. The study ran from July to December of last year, looking into every aspect of the Sheriff's Department's record of in-custody deaths, policies, procedures, facility maintenance and staff records, according to state officials.

Some of the inmates who died in the county's jails over the period had been in custody for only a few days or several months, and others were waiting to be sentenced, set to be released or about to be transferred to different facilities, according to the audit.

The department asserted that its leadership "appreciates the work of the state auditors, and we embrace the findings."

"It is my goal to implement best practices that will ensure safe jails and the best health care for individuals in our custody," Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez said Monday. "Along with this, it is imperative that we create a fully staffed and safe environment for our employees."

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