State audit: San Diego County fails to curb inmate deaths
Speaker 1: (00:00)
The San Diego county Sheriff's department has failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in its custody. That's according to an investigation by California's state auditor, the audit released on the day of outgoing sheriff bill Gore's retirement suggests that legislative action be taken in order to improve the quality of directional care in San Diego county jails. Joining me now as freelance reporter Kelly Davis, whose investigations into deaths at county jails led to the auditor's investigation. Kelly, welcome back to the program.
Speaker 2: (00:32)
Hi, thanks for having me. So
Speaker 1: (00:34)
Before we get into what the report says, remind us why state auditors investigated the Sheriff's department's oversight of Diego county jails.
Speaker 2: (00:42)
As the audit points out there have been 185 deaths in San Diego jails over the last 15 years. San Diego has not only the most deaths for a jail of its size, but in terms of mortality rate, San Diego jails have the highest mortality rate of any jail system in California. And as auditor found, you know, a lot of these deaths were preventable. There were too many suicides, San Diego ranks pretty high in terms of suicides. And so there are a lot of deficiencies in medical and, and mental health care. The
Speaker 1: (01:17)
Language used in the state auditors report is unequivocal. I mean, what did the state you'd say about why so many people are dying in county jails?
Speaker 2: (01:25)
Yeah, no, this is one of the more assertive audits I've seen from the state auditor and the audit actually really focused on solvable problems that the auditors recognized as trends. So for example, deputies have not been doing proper safety checks. They're supposed to check once an hour to ensure, or that a inmate is alive breathing and healthy, but what they actually do is what inmates refer to as drivebys, where they'll walk past a cell and they'll, they'll barely glance in. And, uh, Jeff McDonald at the union Tribune, who's been my colleague in, in reporting on this. We've found this in so many cases where people will have been dead for hours in their cell because nobody has checked in on them. And perhaps a more thorough check earlier on in the day could have found that they were in distress or that they needed to be taken to the infirmary, but instead they were kind of just left there and found hours after they died. The, you know, and the audit also highlighted the need for better mental health screening during the booking process and better follow up on folks with chronic illnesses, such as heart conditions. So the
Speaker 1: (02:29)
Audit outlines a, a number of failures, uh, within the jails, are they proposing any solutions
Speaker 2: (02:36)
Statewide standards? So the statewide rules that guide jails and to how to, to care for the people in their custody, they found the standards are really insufficient for maintaining the safety of folks in custody. And so while they are making recommendations specifically for San Diego, you know, have a mental health clinician during intake, do a better job on following up with folks with chronic illnesses. They're also saying that the board of state and community corrections, which is the entity that kind of oversees jails on the state level, they need to make stronger rules to ensure the welfare of inmates statewide. And the audit actually thinks the best way for that to happen through legislation. So new legislation to kind of boost protections in jails to prevent more deaths like what we're seeing in San Diego,
Speaker 1: (03:27)
You know, in addition to lapses in inmate care, the report outlines the cost to taxpayers in court fees, legal settlements, and jury awards over the years. What can you tell us about that? The,
Speaker 2: (03:39)
So as the audit notes between 2006 and 2020, there were 22 lawsuits filed in San Diego related to deaths of incarcerated folks. And San Diego has settled 11 of those for a total of 9.2 million. So that's only through 2020 that figure that 9.2 million figure doesn't appear to include about five of million in settlements that were made last year. So it's closer to 14, 15 million that taxpayers have paid in jail, death lawsuits. And then there was also a lawsuit involving a young man who was seriously injured in jail. And I think that resulted in a 6 million settlement.
Speaker 1: (04:18)
How did the Sheriff's department re spawn to this report?
Speaker 2: (04:21)
They didn't love it. They kind of attacked the messenger. You know, they question the audits methods, which is something they've done with other outside reports while they did agree with some findings and said that any death is a tragedy and that they'll make changes to reduce in custody deaths. The state auditors called parts of the Sheriff's response, disingenuous, and really question whether the department would be able to make durable change. And so that's why we get kind of the justification. You know, that jails can only be fixed by legislation just because of this resistance to change that we've seen over the years.
Speaker 1: (04:56)
As you mentioned, the report proposes those legislative fixes, what do you expect have to see happen? Next
Speaker 2: (05:02)
Legislators released a bunch of statements yesterday after the audit came out, Senator Tony Atkins and Dr. Aquila Weber who had requested the audit, they called the findings deeply disturbing, and they committed to work together to ensure recommendations are implemented assembly member, Chris ward from San Diego. He also promised to work with folks in the legislature to find the best approach to implement the audits recommendations. You know,
Speaker 1: (05:28)
You've told the stories of a number of people who died in custody in San Diego county jails. Um, we know activists have been pushing for this audit for years. Have you had a chance to speak to any family members, even community activists to hear their thoughts on
Speaker 2: (05:44)
This report? Yes. And they are so grateful for this. There's a group in particular, standing up for racial justice, the racial justice coalition who've really been pushing for an audit like this. They really rallied after the death of a young woman named Alisa Cerna, who actually a nurse has been charged with manslaughter in that case. And so that really lit a fire to get people interested in this and push for some outside entity to come in and take a good hard look at what's going on in jails. And so I think those community groups deserve a lot of credit for drawing renewed interest in this issue and working with, uh, Aquila Weber to get this audit done.
Speaker 1: (06:25)
I've been speaking with Kelly Davis, a San Diego investigative reporter who covers San Diego county jails. Kelly, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: (06:33)
Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Inmate deaths in San Diego County jails have ranked among the highest in California for the past 15 years.
Inmate deaths in San Diego County jails have ranked among the highest in California for the past 15 years and authorities have consistently failed to address the problem, according to an independent review released Thursday by the state auditor that recommended intervention by the Legislature.
From 2006 through 2020, 185 people died in San Diego County’s jails — one of the highest totals in California.
RELATED: San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore leaves office with mixed legacy
The review requested by lawmakers found that the San Diego County Sheriff's Department failed to adequately assess inmates' physical and mental health, which it said likely contributed to the deaths. Corrections officers also did not visually check enough on inmates to ensure their safety.
A citizen‑governed board approved by San Diego County voters to restore public confidence in county law enforcement also failed to investigate nearly one‑third of the inmate deaths that happened over the past 15 years, according to the report.
That means that dozens of deaths did not get scrutinized with a key form of review conducted outside of the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county jails, according to Acting California State Auditor Michael S. Tilden.
Tilden called on the Legislature to step in immediately to ensure that changes to the jails are made “in light of the ongoing risk to inmate safety, the Sheriff’s Department’s inadequate response to deaths, and the lack of effective independent oversight," according to a letter from Tilden to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders.
San Diego County has faced numerous lawsuits from families of inmates who have died over the years.
In November, a county jail nurse was charged with involuntary manslaughter after being accused of walking away from a 24-year-old inmate who collapsed in front of her on a cell floor before the inmate died.
The sheriff's department said in a statement that it supports the report's recommendations and that they “align with our existing practices, current and future plans, as well as proactive efforts to continuously improve health care services and the safety of our jails."
“We participated and cooperated throughout the entire process," the statement said. “We take the findings of the audit seriously and are taking action to implement the recommendations."
The department said it was in the process of hiring more staff for its jails, especially nurses, and it is also planning on renovating its detention facilities.
It also is adding medication-assisted treatment programs and mental health evaluations for incoming inmates when they are booked into its jails and the department is looking at ways to use technology for better checks on inmates and their welfare.