Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Civil rights and oversight groups call for changes following San Diego County jail deaths report

For the seventh time this year, an inmate has died while in custody of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. The department has been under scrutiny since a state audit found inmate deaths at San Diego County jails rank among the highest in the state. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado tells us civil rights groups met with the interim sheriff today to discuss the issue.

Civil rights leaders met with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's interim Sheriff Anthony Ray Tuesday to talk about the high number of in-custody deaths in the San Diego County jail system.

The latest death happened on Monday. In a statement, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said, "An incarcerated adult male was seen by jail medical staff due to shortness of breath and chest pain. Jail medical staff determined the adult male needed to be transported to the hospital, for further evaluation. While the incarcerated male was pending transfer to the hospital via 911, he went into medical distress. Deputies administered CPR until paramedics arrived and transported the incarcerated male by ambulance to an area hospital where he was pronounced deceased."

The inmate has so far only been identified as a 38-year-old man.


Tuesday's meeting between activists and the interim sheriff was planned even before this latest death. After the meeting Shane Harris, the president of the People's Association of Justice Advocates, said the seventh death this year demonstrates an urgent need now for action.

RELATED: San Diego spent 64% of federal CARES Act funding on police budget, report by The Guardian shows

"Going to jail should not be a death sentence," Harris said in a news conference. "That is what I told the sheriff and that is what I asked the sheriff to think about when he goes home at night."

Harris also said he pressed Ray to endorse the Saving Lives in Custody Act. That bill by Assemblywoman Akilah Weber calls for providing inmates with additional health services, mental health support, and increased accountability in an effort to reduce deaths in custody.

Harris said he also asked the sheriff to release the body camera footage from the death and all in custody deaths faster. "We need to see a very expedient way of getting answers to families," he said.


An independent report released on Friday shows that based on population, San Diego County jails have the highest number of excess deaths, overdose deaths and people who died without being sentenced.

"It’s at such a level and it’s such a concern that I think that areas of additional research should be done to really drill down into the why," said Paul Parker, president of the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, which commissioned the report.

Parker said another finding was the racial makeup of the deaths. "White people are more likely to die in jail whereas, persons of color, specifically Black people, are more likely to be in jail."

He has proposed the jails to allow county or independent jurisdiction over those providing medical and mental health care in the jails. "I think ... if we could have that we would then get the whole picture of what is occurring and be able to better recommend changes," Parker said.

RELATED: San Diego jury awards $85M in death of man following arrest

He says this issue should matter to everyone. "Many of these folks are not convicted of anything, and many of these folks are either experiencing homelessness or experiencing mental health issues, or addiction issues," Parker said, "and these are the issues that need to be addressed, right? [They're] not throw-away people."

The board will meet Tuesday night to discuss the finding of the report. Meanwhile Harris said he expects the sheriff to back that bill before it goes to committee. We reached out to the sheriff's department for comment, they declined.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.