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San Diego county jail inmates now armed with lifesaving medicine

San Diego County jail inmates are now getting easy access to medication that can reduce overdoses. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado says the Sheriff hopes this will reduce the number of deaths in custody.

So far in 2022, 10 inmates have died in San Diego County jails. But, even before the number rose that high, a report found that San Diego jails have the highest unexpected death rate out of 12 major county jail systems in California; "unexpected" deaths mean people who were not believed to be in danger of dying when they were taken into custody. And, even before that report, the state auditor had recommended sweeping changes in San Diego's jails.

It’s a record Sheriff Tony Ray said he was seeking to change. "We’re trying to make our jails as safe as possible — we don’t want to be known as the people where you go and pass away," he said.

And that’s why, starting Friday, Naloxone will be more accessible to inmates, found in all common areas of jails, along with instructions on how to use it. The prescription nasal spray medication is commonly known by the brand name NARCAN. It reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

"It’s not medical treatment, but it can stop that until we can get medical treatment in," Ray said.

During an April candidates forum, Republican John Hemmerling commented on where transgender women should use the bathroom. He says he left his job this week with the City Attorney's Office to focus on the election, not because of backlash from his comments.

Previously, only deputies carried the medication with them inside the jails. Ray said that had already made a difference. "We’ve saved a number of lives since January 1 of 2020," he said. "I believe the current number is 396 people ... that we’ve contacted, that have gone down (and) we’ve been able to revive with the use of Naloxone and NARCAN."

News of the change was welcomed by Paul Parker, the executive officer of the county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board. "It’s a great day for the folks who are in the care and custody of the Sheriff’s Department," he said.

Parker said CLERB had been calling for this action for years, and said many of the people who have died in custody had not been convicted or sentenced. "Anyone of us, you or me, we could wind up in jail tonight for something that we didn’t do and certainly for something that we haven’t been convicted of," he said.

Parker said continued cooperation between CLERB and the Sheriff’s Department would save lives and spare other families heartache, and thanked the department for taking action. "Thank you for listening to us, thank you for implementing those recommendations, more importantly to the families of folks who have died," he said.

Shane Harris, with the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, said this was a positive first step but there was still more work to do. "Certainly these families need to be heard more and more and to think that this is a step in the right direction," he said. "It’s a step, but it’s one step for too many steps that need to be taken and too far too late."

Ray said making this possible took a lot of research, including visiting jails where inmates have access. Though he didn’t have information about the cost, he said it was worth it. "You can’t put a price on a person’s life," he said.