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Grand Jury Criticizes San Diego Jail Suicide-Prevention Efforts

The door of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in Kearny Mesa, Dec. 31, 2014.
Tarryn Mento
The door of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in Kearny Mesa, Dec. 31, 2014.
Grand Jury Criticizes San Diego Jail Suicide-Prevention Efforts
Grand Jury Criticizes San Diego Jail Suicide Prevention Efforts GUEST: Kelly Davis, journalist

The mental health problems of San Diego inmates that lead to jail suicides is the subject of a new report by the San Diego County grand jury. Over the last 12 years, our County has had the highest rate of jail suicide of any large county in California. The grand jury report notes that the sheriff department has procedures in place to identify inmates with mental health issues but criticizes the amount of training given to deputies and lack of comprehensive policy aimed at preventing jail suicides. Joining me is Kelly Davis a reporter was done many stories on San Diego jails and has most recently been reporting on jail suicide. You've been reporting on the subject for quite some time and any idea why the County grand jury decided to focus on jail suicides now? I've been writing since 2013 and I would like to think they saw my stories and that something needed to be done but I know other folks have reported on this. I know radio station did a series on it and too late for the grand jury report but Dan Littlefield did a really great piece last week on mental illness in jails. He met the County grand jury has looked at jails before but is this the first time they focused on suicide? The role of the County grand jury each year on issues of concern but they also are tasked with doing inspections of all County detention facilities every year. I know when I started reporting on this I am writing these stories and they are congratulating the sheriff's department for reducing the number of deaths and suicides and their numbers were wrong. So I wrote another story saying what is going on here? Look at what the media is reporting. This is the first time that they have used an entire report to talk about this issue. The report says San Diego has more jail suicides then Los Angeles or Orange county. How does the San Diego County Sheriff's Department explained that difference? They told me in the past that -- when you are calculating the jail suicide rate, you look at the daily population and San Diego is very similar to orange county. Orange county does a great job of keeping the inmate safe. They have no suicides for entire year or maybe one. The County Sheriff's Department said they book more people so people turning through faster. Experts I've talked to said that is not a good weight to measure the suicide rate. You have to look at that average daily population so how many people are you dealing with on a day-to-day basis in your jails and use that to calculate the suicide rate. The County grand jury said there's a lack of overall strategy for suicide prevention in San Diego jails. If there is not a comprehensive strategy than what is in the training manual for correction officers about preventing suicides push Mark Their policies and procedure manual is focused on what happens at intake. Citing a list of things that the staff should look for is a high-profile case has a person tried to commit suicide before? Does a person seem despondent? If you have the wrong stuff that's maybe not as keenly aware of what signs to look for our if the person is not exhibiting signs are communicating how they are feeling, then they could be misclassified. So the policy and procedures focus on what happens at intake and doesn't really go much beyond that as far as articulating a comprehensive strategy and what the grand jury wanted was a mission statement or mantra. Just know people will die in our jails and wanted to see that really come through in these policies and procedures. The sheriff department released a statement noting the work to identify people's assessable to suicide and provide them with mental health services. The sheriff department along with the grand jury leaves that one suicide in a detention facility is too many and they are expected to formally respond to the County grand jury report within 90 days. A recommendation Kelly made by the grand jury is at the sheriff department create and fill the position of a mental health director for jails. How are the needs of inmates coordinated now? The report pointed out is that mental health staff or contract workers. The report suggests that the sheriffs department really needs to add a full-time mental health professional to the sheriff staff to supervise the contract. What reforms have been implemented in the past few years? The thing with an inmate who will come in and express suicidal intentions they will be put in a safety cell, which is the empty room with a hole in the floor working go to the bathroom and put in these suicide smocks. So of course you do not want to end up in that room so they created in a hands observation unit, which is a little more gentler safety room. They also have a step down unit where inmates will get increased monitoring if they are coming out of a safety cell. So they have taken steps to try to address it. They've added more mental health staff but a lot of these reforms that they've made they made them in 2015 and 2016 we had five more suicides some of which were lovably preventable if someone had just had more training and paying closer attention. So Dana Littlefield story and the Union-Tribune quoted the sheriffs department's chief medical officer who said that they are working every day to try to improve their system. So there had been no suicides so far this year. Maybe these are just now taking hold. I've been speaking with Kelly Davis. Thank you so much. Thank you. Coming up an update on the increasing number of asylum-seekers being held at the Tijuana San Diego border. It is 12:18 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition .

San Diego County jails lack a clear policy statement on suicide prevention, despite having the highest suicide rate among large California counties, the San Diego County grand jury said in a report released Thursday.

The grand jury's report, the first to focus on jail suicides since at least 2011, found a San Diego County Sheriff's Department policy manual was recently updated with procedures for new safety cells for inmates believed to be at risk for suicide. But there wasn't any detailed training for correctional officers on how to effectively reduce suicides or a larger written policy statement from the Sheriff's Department. The grand jury concluded that a top-level suicide prevention plan is needed to focus jail staff on potential warnings for suicide.

There have not been any suicides in San Diego jails so far this year.

During an inspection at a jail facility, the grand jury asked a correctional officer if there had been any recent suicides in that jail.

"The answer was no, then a pause, and then 'No, there have been no suicides in this facility. You are not allowed to die in this facility,'" the report said. "This was the only time the Grand Jury heard a correctional officer with the attitude that suicides are not acceptable in jail."

The Sheriff's Department said it would formally respond to the report within 90 days.

"The Sheriff's Department, along with the Grand Jury, believes that one suicide in a detention facility is too many," spokesman Ryan Keim said. "The Department has worked tirelessly to improve our ability to identify individuals susceptible to suicide and provide them the necessary mental health services. The Department has also partnered with the County of San Diego to improve mental health resources outside of jail that will hopefully prevent many individuals with mental health issues from re-entering a detention facility once they are released."

Reporter Kelly Davis, who has covered San Diego's jail suicide rate, joined KPBS Midday Edition on Monday with more on the importance of the grand jury's report.