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San Diego County Jails Under Scrutiny For Numerous Deaths

Speaker 1: 00:00 A recent story in the Guardian, looks at death's inside of the San Diego County jail with four deaths in a six week span. The report brings into question something that's been asked for years, whether the sheriff's department is capable of keeping prisoners alive, particularly those who suffer from chronic or mental illness. Kelly Davis is a San Diego journalist focusing on criminal justice and vulnerable populations. She did the reporting on this story and joins me to talk about the latest. Kelly. Welcome. Thank you. How many deaths have happened recently? Speaker 2: 00:30 Well, we've had the four so far this year and those happened in a six week period, um, between, uh, early February and mid March. Uh, but then also there have been just a spate of deaths over the last decade. A, I counted at least 135 since 2009. So that's, you know, at least once a month, a one death a month for, for the last 10 years. And what were the circumstances? Well, in, in the cases I looked at for the Guardian story, uh, you know, to that, that stood out. One was a young man named Ivan Ortiz. Uh, he had, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Um, he had a history of, of harming himself and, uh, he was placed in the jails psychiatric observation unit, which is supposed to be the highest, the highest level of care, highest level of observation for someone who might be at risk of suicide. But, but somehow he managed to get, uh, they, his family's told, uh, a plastic Baggie and put it over his head and use it to, to suffocate himself. And, uh, another case that was particularly troubling and another young man named Michael Wilson, uh, he had a, um, a congenital heart heart defect. Uh, I think his, his sister had told me that his heart only worked about 25% of what it should. And he had recently had a defibrillator defibrillator put in his heart and he called his mom from jail and repeatedly told her that he was not getting his prescription heart medication. And 10 days after he was booked, uh, he died from heart failure. Speaker 1: 02:09 So there seems to be a pattern with prisoners who are mentally ill or have chronic conditions. What have attorneys or advocates said about this? Speaker 2: 02:17 You know, they, they, they want to know why this keeps happening. Um, you know, I've spoken with, uh, attorneys who've handled lawsuits involving inmates who've, who've died in jails and, uh, an advocacy group called disability, disability rights. California did an investigation, a three year investigation that was released last year. And both of them want to know, um, you know, why has this become, like you said, a pattern. Why hasn't the sheriff's department recognized and learned from, from past deaths, you know, as to what changes, what reforms they can make so it doesn't happen again. And what has the jail said about this? What has their response been to these deaths? You know, they, they tell me they can't talk about specific cases, but they maintain that they provide excellent care. Do you think the rate of death happening inside the jail is considered a crisis? San Diego right now has the highest suicide rate of, of all large California counties. Speaker 2: 03:13 And I think a lot of people would consider that a crisis. So has the jail changed policy at all? They say they have. You know, I've been reporting on this issue for her number of years now and I've been repeatedly told that they've made policy changes, but if they have those changes haven't taken hold. Do you think the sheriff's department is in denial about these issues? You know, um, as I report these stories, I look at, um, you know, similar stories on deaths in other counties throughout the nation. And one thing I notice is, is a lot of other sheriffs, um, we'll say, yes, we have a problem. We're going to make changes. I've, I've never heard the sheriff's Department or the sheriff here, I admit that, that there's, there's an issue and that they, um, they need to make some fixes. Um, and I don't know if that's because of the liability issue, but, um, I just haven't seen the same willingness to confront the problem. Speaker 2: 04:13 I'm here as, as I have another other places. I know it's sometimes difficult to know what goes on inside of jails, but are there protocols and other jails that safeguard against deaths? Like the ones we've seen here in San Diego that may be San Diego County, uh, has not adopted, I'm not sure. I don't know if I can answer that question, but I could tell you that they're there. They're supposed to be these protocols in place. They're supposed to be safety checks, you know, for, for folks like Ivan Ortiz in the psychiatric observation unit, he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. Um, just folks in your general population, they're supposed to be checked on every hour. Um, Michael Wilson should have been in the medical unit where he would have been observed more frequently. So the protocols are in place, they're written in policy, we just don't see them happening. Do you have any idea of how many lawsuits have resulted from deaths in the San Diego County jail? And I know of at least a dozen lawsuits, uh, over the last 10 years. And how much do these lawsuits costs the county? Uh, so far, at least 7 million. Um, there are a number of lawsuits right now that are in the process, you know, going through the court process. So you know, they, that number could definitely get higher. I've been speaking with Kelly Davis, a journalist covering criminal justice and vulnerable populations. Kelly, thanks for joining us.

Four prisoners died in less than six weeks at the San Diego Central Jail.