A video allegedly showing jail staff’s negligence was played to the federal jury tasked with deciding if the county of San Diego was negligent in the case of an asthmatic, heroin-withdrawing inmate in their care.
The clip was one of the first pieces of evidence exhibited Tuesday in the case of Daniel Sisson, a 21-year-old heroin addict who died in the Vista Detention Facility in 2011 from asthma asphyxiation.
His family is suing the county and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, accusing three nurses and two deputies of not following protocol and allowing Sisson’s death.
In June 2011, Sisson, a heroin addict who had seven previous trips to jail, was booked into the Vista Detention Facility for possession of a controlled substance.
His family told NBC 7 from a young age, the Cardiff by the Sea surfer suffered from asthma and a painful arthritic disease, eventually turning from prescription drugs to heroin.
“The last time he went in, we really thought he was going to get sober in there,” said Sisson’s aunt Deanna Russo. “We really thought jail was going to be good for him.”
During opening statements in court Tuesday, the family’s attorney Chris Morris told the jury Sisson started going through a withdrawal shortly after he was taken to jail. The withdrawal triggered an asthma attack, causing him to vomit ten times and slowly asphyxiate.
Morris showed surveillance video from inside the jail which he claims depicts staff being negligent as Sisson died in his cell.
“The video shows the deputies just walking by his cell not really looking in not monitoring not really doing anything not even breaking stride,” Morris said.
But the defense argued there is no evidence as to what jail staff could or could not see, whether it was apparent Sisson was dying.
According to the lawsuit, the family claims the sick man’s cell mate cried for help, but his protestations were not heeded.
Defense attorneys also say Sisson initially failed to disclose he was using illicit drugs and refused care on several occasions.
But Morris argues just hours later, Sisson admitted he was going through a withdrawal, and his asthma alone should have precluded him from being placed in the jail’s general population.
“They should have looked at him like he was a human being, not like he was something they were storing in a cage,” said Russo.
Deputies did not check on Sisson until three hours after he had died, according to the lawsuit.
The family says they hope changes are made in the monitoring of inmates and that the system finds a better way to handle drug addiction so something like this does not happen again.
“These kids are addicts; they’re not criminals. They’re drug addicts, and our system just treats them like trash,” said Russo. “He was our family, he was our baby and he’s gone.”
The trial is set to continue Wednesday.