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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

San Diego County Jail Deaths Outpace Other Large California Counties

 September 24, 2019 at 10:39 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Reporter. Kelly Davis has been covering inmate deaths in San Diego County jails for several years now. She's teamed up with reporters, Jeff McDonald and Lauren Schroeder from the San Diego union Tribune for a watchdog investigative series on the subject. Davis has reporting on the jail deaths, has received criticism from the Sheriff's department by the numbers and statistics she's compiled, seem to speak for themselves. Joining me is reporter Kelly Davis and Kelly, welcome to the program. Thank you. Could you give us some overall idea of what those numbers I referred to are telling us just how much worse is the death in custody problem in San Diego County jails compared to other counties in the state? Speaker 2: 00:43 Yeah, so, so what we did is we took a decades worth of data from the six largest jail systems in California. And, um, we calculated using a methodology that, uh, is used by the Bureau of justice statistics, uh, which does, um, kind of annual, semi-annual reports on, on, on deaths in jails and prisons. So we used their methodology and looked at the six largest jail systems in California. Uh, we calculated the mortality rate and the suicide rate. And what we found is, is San Diego is really an outlier, uh, by far, um, you know, for the last decade and even year by year, uh, led, uh, the, those six large County jail systems in, uh, both, uh, the death rate and the suicide rate. Speaker 1: 01:31 Yeah. You're in this series and in the past you've highlighted suicide as a particular issue in San Diego jails. What is the suicide rate compared with other counties? Speaker 2: 01:41 It's pretty bad here. And you know, I, I frequently, you know, we'll, we'll look at orange County, which is, which is, you know, our, our closest County, you know, to the North and kind of similar to San Diego and you know, they'll have years of many years of no suicides or one suicide. And here in San Diego we've had a, there were multiple years with five and six suicides and, and similar to LA County, you know, they, they, um, you know, they've been able to cut their suicide rate in half. Um, there was a year or recently where they had only one suicide and, and San Diego just consistently sees multiple people each year take their own lives. Speaker 1: 02:24 The series tells us stories of some inmates who killed themselves in San Diego jail. Can you share perhaps one of those stories with us? Speaker 2: 02:33 In March of this year, there's a young man named Ivan Ortiz. Um, he had previously tried to harm himself in jail. He had managed to break his jaw. He, and he was put in a psychiatric observation unit. Um, the morning of March 18th of this year, he was found with a noose in his cell and ligature marks around his neck. And so they took him out of his cell. Uh, they evaluated him and he told medical staff that he felt like ND in his own life, you know, so he said, I, you know, I, I'm, I'm, I'd like to see I'm gonna kill myself. Um, they returned him to his cell, um, but somehow he had a, a plastic bag in his cell and he, he put it over his head and he suffocated himself. This was all caught on, uh, close, closed caption or, um, closed circuit. Uh, there's a closed circuit camera that was supposed to be, someone was supposed to be sitting at a bank of screens, you know, in monitoring this young man. And so, um, and they weren't, and he was able to suffocate himself. And it's like you've got all the training, all the promises, you know, all the, the new new cells, new policies, and here's someone actively suicidal and you can save him. Speaker 1: 03:49 The article points out that deaths in County jails really started to rise after sheriff Gore took office. Do you have any idea why that is? Speaker 2: 03:59 You know, there was a contractor who was hired to provide psychiatric services, uh, the CEO of this, this company had, had no experience in psychiatry, no training in psychiatry. So it's like, how did they get the contract? Do you know? So things like that. Um, you know, um, there had been warning signs, um, you know, that they needed to add a great greats or fencing to the second three of the jails have set two tiers and people were jumping and, and so, you know, uh, there was a family of a young man who killed himself by jumping and, and they said, please don't let this happen to anyone again. And that was in 2013, um, you know, following that, there were more suicides from people jumping. They didn't install the greats and the fencing until 2016 and later. And I think some places still don't have fencing. So, um, you know, there's not one thing we could point to. Uh, you know, if you read the stories, there's, there's just a lot of little things that have kind of added up and a lot of it is, yeah, just warning signs that were ignored or, um, calls for changes and those changes just came too late. Speaker 1: 05:13 Are there any signs that this situation may improve? Speaker 2: 05:16 Well, there's, there was a dip in suicides, you know, from 2013 to 2016. Um, there were 22 suicides and then in 2017 there was one 2018, there were four so far this year. We only know of one, although there's a number of deaths that, um, the sheriff won't provide any information to us. You know, the jail has a jail system, has a new commander that we were very impressed with when we spoke with her. So hopefully, um, you know, they, they've heard enough from, you know, outside, um, advocacy groups from, you know, consultants they've brought in. Speaker 1: 05:52 I've been speaking with a reporter, Kelly Davis. She's teamed up with reporters from the San union Tribune for that watchdog series running now on the subject of jail deaths in San Diego County. Kelly, thank you very much. Thank you. We asked the San Diego County Sheriff's department for its response to the jail death series. The department sent us a statement which reads in part the UT stories do not take into consideration differences in jail systems up and down the state. A simple check of the open justice portal of the California department of justice will show that when all jails within a County are compared, including city jails, which do not exist in San Diego, our in custody death rate is on par with them. You can read the entire Sheriff's department statement on our website, kpbs.org.

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According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, at least 140 people have died in San Diego County jails since 2009 — an average of one inmate death per month over the past 10 years.
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