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Sheriff announces partial reopening of renovated Rock Mountain jail

San Diego County Sheriff Kelly Martinez invited reporters to tour a renovated jail that's partially reopening this week. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen says it comes amid continued scrutiny over the county's high rate of in-custody deaths.

San Diego County Sheriff Kelly Martinez on Wednesday announced a jail in Otay Mesa would partially reopen this week after receiving millions of dollars in renovations.

The Rock Mountain Detention Facility previously operated as a private federal prison, but was vacated in 2015.

"When they vacated the facility, we decided to renovate it and make it a county jail to help our system with the renovations we knew we needed," Martinez said. "It's sort of the lynchpin to all of the other renovations."


Starting Saturday, deputies will move about 200 inmates to the jail, freeing up space in other jails that await a host of repairs including plumbing, electrical work, HVAC improvements and accessibility upgrades.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in May that the Rock Mountain jail's renovation was years behind schedule and $10 million over budget. Making improvements to jail infrastructure involves carefully managing the location of roughly 4,000 inmates that can sometimes be packed into jails that are over capacity.

"It's a very complicated logistical problem to solve, and so we've got really talented people that are working on it," Martinez said.

The Sheriff's Department announced the jail's partial reopening at a press conference in a gated area of the San Diego County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa. Outside the gates, a small group of protesters gathered to draw attention to the persistent problem of in-custody deaths.

"We want answers but we get none!" shouted Michael Serna as he held up a banner with the face of his daughter, Elisa Serna, who died in the Las Colinas women's jail in 2019.


"She died after falling and striking her head multiple times, multiple seizures," Serna said. "And jail staff ignored her pleas for help."

A judge on Monday ruled the doctor and nurse who were meant to be caring for Elisa Serna should stand trial for involuntary manslaughter. The doctor, Friederike Von Lintig, and the nurse, Danalee Pascua, have both pleaded not guilty and could face up to four years in prison if convicted.

Last week, the Sheriff's Department reported two more inmates had died while in custody: 66-year-old Paul Arthur Heimark and 27-year-old Pedro Junior Ornelas III. They bring the total number of in-custody deaths this year to eight.

Serna said he suspected Wednesday's press conference was timed to distract from the ongoing problem of San Diego County's high inmate death rate.

"They want to take the focus off the blame that is theirs also to bear and just point the public to all the things that are being changed," Serna said. "Two people died last week in custody. It's still going on, even after all this reform. When will it end?"

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.