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Report: San Diego Jails Face A Suicide ‘Crisis’

A man is shown walking out the front door of the San Diego County Sheriff's D...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: A man is shown walking out the front door of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in Kearny Mesa, Dec. 31, 2014.

Report: San Diego Jails Face a Suicide 'Crisis'

GUEST:

Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel, Disability Rights California

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Suicides In San Diego County Jail: A System Failing People With Mental Illness

Suicides In San Diego County Jail: A System Fai...

A report from Disability Rights California on suicide prevention efforts in San Diego County jails.

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San Diego County jails continue to face a suicide crisis and there is probable cause people jailed with disabilities are subject to abuse and neglect, according to a three-year investigation by Disability Rights California.

The group is the state’s designated advocacy system for people with disabilities, which gives it the legal right to inspect any facility holding people with disabilities. It found the jails did not have enough mental health staff and criticized the county's use of solitary confinement for people with mental health needs. There were more than 46 jail suicides in the past 13 years, though the annual rate fell to one suicide last year.

The Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the county jails, uses “enhanced observation housing units” for inmates who may be at a higher risk of suicide. Inmates there are kept alone and don’t have access to personal property, including clothes. Disability Rights California quoted a psychiatrist’s report that called the isolation “inhumane.”

“People told us they became more suicidal and depressed by being in these units,” Disability Rights California litigation counsel and report co-author Aaron Fischer said. “And it sends a message to people in the jail that if you say you’re engaging in self harm, you know where you’re going to go. It has a deterrent effect.”

The Sheriff’s Department, which cooperated with the investigation, issued an 18-page response to the report. It disagreed that the enhanced observation or safety cells were harsh or inhumane and said those protocols were designed to prevent suicides.

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San Diego's Response to Jail Suicide Report

San Diego's Response to Jail Suicide Report

A response from the County of San Diego and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to a Disability Rights California report on jail suicides.

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“The department wants to be careful not to create a housing option that would encourage other inmates to manipulate the system for personal gain,” Sheriff Bill Gore wrote.

Gore also rejected statistics in the report that San Diego County has the highest jail suicide rates among similarly-sized California counties. San Diego jails have a higher proportion of white inmates than other jails in the state, according to Gore, and whites are more likely to kill themselves compared to African Americans and Latinos. He suggested another way to calculate the suicide rate that would take into account that higher risk population.

“None of this is intended to suggest that the Sheriff’s Department suicide-prevention practices cannot be improved,” Gore wrote. “The Sheriff’s Department takes suicide prevention very seriously and has invested (and will continue to invest) significant resources to recruit and train jail staff, implement effective programs, and create an infrastructure conducive to preventing jail suicides.”

But Disability Rights California wrote in its report that even if a new metric would lower San Diego’s suicide rate compared to other counties, that higher risk population should still spur more action.

“The fact that San Diego County may have a higher-than average number of inmates at elevated risk of suicide only adds urgency to the need for action,” the report said. “Whatever the methodology for evaluating suicide rates, the number of suicides in San Diego County’s jails in recent years is a cause for extreme concern.”

The report comes about a year after the San Diego County grand jury found the jails lacked a clear policy statement on suicide prevention.

Fischer joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday to discuss the report and its recommendations.

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