Sheriff's Department Refuses to Release Report on Jail Suicides

A local journalist has now sued the department for violating public records laws.

A San Diego journalist says the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is withholding a potentially revealing report on the Sheriff Department’s response to the high number of suicides inside county jails. 

Kelly Davis, a freelance reporter, has covered deaths and suicides inside San Diego County detention facilities for more than five years. Last week Davis filed a lawsuit against the County and the Sheriff’s Department for violating California’s public records laws. 

More than 30 people have committed suicide inside San Diego County jails since 2010, according to an April 2018 report from Disability Rights, a statewide non-profit. The thirty deaths, the report finds, is “higher than the rate in similarly sized county jails in California, the State prison system, and jails nationally.” 

Aaron Fischer, an Attorney for Disability Rights California helped write that report. Fischer said the issue needs to be properly addressed and reforms must occur to prevent the trend from continuing. 

“The number of people dying by suicide in San Diego County’s jails demonstrates a clear crisis,” Fischer told NBC 7 Investigates by email. 

“The county has to recognize that this is not just about keeping inmates alive,” added Fischer.

“The jail suicide crisis shows that there is a dangerous lack of adequate mental health treatment for inmates, leaving many hundreds of people to suffer.” 

But one problem, Davis tells NBC 7 Investigates, that the reforms the County implemented were not reducing the number of suicides inside jails. Davis searched for a reason but was met with resistance.

“I've repeatedly found instances where people died because deputies failed to follow department policies or the policies themselves were inadequate,” says Davis. 

This year, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department hired Lindsay Hayes, a leading expert in suicide prevention to review the Department’s practices in place. 

Hayes, who is a Project Director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), has been recognized for his work on suicide prevention within jails, prisons and juvenile facilities across the country, according to NCIA’s website

Last month, Davis filed a request under the California Public Records Act for Hayes’ report but the Sheriff’s Department’s Legal Advisor declined to release the records. 

In an August 28 response, Sheriff’s Department Legal Advisor Sanford Toyen denied Davis’ request, stating the report was not available to the public. 

“The records you seek are exempt from disclosure,” Legal Advisor Sanford Toyen said. “Attorney work product” was the reason Toyen stated for withholding the report. 

NBC 7 Investigates has also filed a public record request for Hayes’ report. 

Hayes told NBC 7 Investigates counties throughout the state have released similar reports that he has written. 

One such report was released by officials with the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections in 2016. 

In an email, Hayes tells NBC 7 Investigates that the report “was submitted to the county counsel office and was not a public document.” 

“Other jurisdictions I have worked with sometimes release my report, sometimes they do not. There is no requirement that reports are disclosed to the public,” said Hayes. 

But Davis says the information is too important to keep under lock and key. 

“The public has the right to know whether the Sheriff's Department is doing everything possible to prevent vulnerable inmates from harming themselves," Davis told NBC 7 Investigates. 

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment for this article. 

Davis and the County have grappled before over suicides in local jails. 

Last November, attorneys representing San Diego County subpoenaed Davis to testify in the civil trial brought by the widow of a Marine who killed himself while in custody at a North County jail. 

The judge, in that case, credited Davis for putting the county on notice about its “inadequate suicide prevention policies and training," adding that Davis’ exposé revealed a “pattern of constitutional violations” by jail personnel.

A journalist's award-winning stories on jail deaths in San Diego County landed her in court. NBC 7 Investigates Mari Payton shares why the court's decision is important for journalism.

Attorneys for San Diego County, however, shot back, demanding Davis testify and release ten-years’ worth of notes, detailing how she calculated the number of suicides in her reporting. 

Davis’ attorney objected and a judge later ruled that she did not have to take the stand or release her notes. 

Journalists aren’t the only ones to complain about limited access to information from the county jails. 

In 2015, NBC 7 Investigates found families of loved ones who died while in custody in San Diego County jails were struggling to get information on what happened. 

Some of those families had to resort to filing lawsuits against the department, in order to obtain the information they were looking for. 

In the last five years, more than 60 people have died inside local jail facilities, and NBC 7 Investigates found getting information about these deaths is difficult, even for the inmates’ families. NBC 7’s Mari Payton reports.

This article has been updated to better reflect Davis' statement to NBC 7 Investigates. 

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