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Report: San Diego Jails Face A Suicide 'Crisis'

April 25, 2018 1:49 p.m.

Report: San Diego Jails Face a Suicide 'Crisis'


Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel, Disability Rights California

Related Story: Report: San Diego Jails Face A Suicide 'Crisis'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

>>> San Diego County's jail suicide rate has already been the focus of a County grand jury report and in-depth investigative news articles. The organization disability rights California has issued a report criticizing the high number of suicides in San Diego County jails. Over recent years, the number has been the highest of any jail system in California. Since disability rights California has the right to inspect conditions inside any facility that holds people with disabilities, gain greater access to jails and inmate records and previous investigations. Joining me is Aaron Fischer , litigation counsel with Disability Rights California . He is also co-author of the report. Welcome to the program.
>> Thank you for having me.
>> Based on the data, how prevalent are suicides and suicide attempts in San Diego jails compared to other jail systems in California X
>> Over the last several years, San Diego County jail has outpaced any other jail system of similar size in the state of California in terms of suicide deaths, more than 30 suicides in the last handful of years. 2017 is slightly better with only one suicide which is good. What we found in our report is it is not just about the suicides, it is about suicide attempts in people who are suffering due to untreated mental illness inside the jails. Those numbers are also skyhigh for San Diego County jails.
>> The San Diego grand jury had its own report last year on jail death and said new safety cells could help address the suicide rate. Had the safety cells helped?
>> One of the things the county has done and they do give credit to the leadership within the department to take this issue seriously, is that they have taken steps such as expanding safety cells, which I have to explain for a moment. They are cells that are barren. They are rubber rooms with nothing but a small grate in the floor to use to defecate and urinate. They are very harsh conditions. Many jails and prisons use these but only for very short periods of time, or at least they should be. What we found is that many people are in the cells in San Diego County for long periods of time. They may not be able to engage in acts of self-harm like hanging himself because there is nothing in the cell and they are often without any clothing or even a blanket. It was not helping to treat the mental health condition, see you have people who may be safe for a day or two or three but they still were in dire need of treatment.
>> The San Diego County Sheriff's office disputes how the suicide rate is calculated. Their argument has something to do with the high number of white inmates in San Diego jails and how whites generally kill themselves more often than African-Americans or Latinos. Should your numbers take that into consideration?
>> The method we use to calculate suicide rates in San Diego County and compared to other counties is a method used by the United States Department of Justice. It is the accepted method of calculating suicide rate. It is very common. There are other ways to look at it and it is fair to look at which populations, whether by race or age or anything else, may be at greater risk of suicide or serious self-harm. What we take exception to is that that somehow is a handicap or gives the county a pass in terms of the suicide numbers they have seen. If anything, if they believe the population is more at risk than in other systems have a greater need to act and to prevent those horrible tragedies from occurring.
>> You said the report is recommending San Diego County change the way it uses safety cells. What other changes they recommending for the greater protection of inmates?
>> One is to significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement, especially for individuals with mental illness. A second one is to start delivering treatment within the jail. Right now, anything close to meaningful mental health treatment with staff that are trained to provide mental health care in the units with inmate patients, really only happens after somebody reaches such a level of deterioration or attempts suicide. One other thing, San Diego County like many other counties, has an enormous and disproportionate number of people with mental illness. It is costly to care for those people and is very harmful -- in very harmful conditions. Another one of our recommendations to the County is to look at that population and do whatever they can to reduce the number of people with mental illness ending up inside these jails. They can be treated safely and more effectively in the community in many cases.
>> You know that San Diego's jails already have a committed mental health staff and strong leaders inside the Sheriff's department. What do these people need to make these changes happen?
>> It is for the county to step up and provide the resources so that those leaders and staff numbers can do their work in a professional way. The jails have been understaffed from the mental health standpoint for years. The county is just now in recent months digging its way out. Have a long way to go to have the staffing and resources and space to provide a sort of treatment the people inside the jail need. The other thing we think is critically important is to provide for meaningful oversight, external oversight. You see it in an increasing number of systems, other counties in the state. It provides transparency and accountability for what happens inside these jails.
>> I have been speaking with Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel with disability rights California and Erin, thank you very much.
>> You can read the report and the County's 18 page response on our website,