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Roundtable: The deadly situation inside San Diego's jails

 May 13, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: This week on roundtable. Jail isn't supposed to be pleasant , but it shouldn't be life threatening. And yet , San Diego County lockups are among the deadliest in California. We're talking with some of the local journalists who are digging deep into this multilayered public health problem with no easy solution. I met Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable.
S2: It's happened again. Another inmate has died while in custody at a jail run by the San Diego Sheriff's Department. The death comes on the heels of rallies and outcry over the high number of fatalities.
S3: Homicides and its improper treatment and care that people are getting in jail. One by one , family members told their stories with a mixture of anger and sadness about what happened to their loved ones while in custody on Valentine's Day.
S4: My dad was found deceased on the jail floor , naked , alone , cold , and in his ashes. I want somebody to answer. Somebody say we were neglectful , but none of that will bring back my dad. Never even had a traffic ticket.
S2: Civil rights leaders met with interim sheriff Anthony Ray this morning to talk about the high number of in-custody deaths. The meeting was planned even before the latest death on Monday.
S3: Going to jail should not be a death sentence. And that is what I told the sheriff , and that is what I asked the sheriff to think about when he goes home at night. The fact that we just had a seventh death in the county jails demonstrates the urgent need now.
S1: That's just a sampling of the coverage by KPBS. In recent months on a situation where San Diego County ranks worst in California , in-custody deaths at local jails. Just a couple of weeks ago , it was Omar Ornelas , a man in his mid-twenties from North County. He died from a drug overdose at the George Bailey Detention Center in Otay Mesa. And just last week , 31 year old Lionel VILLASENOR died at the Men's Central Jail in downtown. He's the ninth person to die in custody this year. This week on roundtable , we're talking with some of the reporters who are paying close attention to this topic. Kelly Davis has covered these developments for years for several local publications , most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Also from the U-T , columnist Charles Clarke is here. He's done several recent pieces on what might be done about all this. And also here with us is KPBS investigative reporter Claire TRAGESER. A big part of her work is following the accountability efforts for local law enforcement. We're so glad that all of you are here , Kelly. We're going to begin with you here. Let's start with this recent study. You and your colleague Jeff McDonald reported on it. The Citizens Review Board , they look into these jail deaths. They're the ones that commissioned it. What did that study find ? Yeah.
S5: So like you said , the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board , which is the entity that investigates allegations of misconduct by county law enforcement , and they also investigate all in-custody deaths. They commissioned a study from a firm called Analytical Consulting to look specifically at deaths in custody. And the study found that San Diego jails have the highest number of unexplained deaths among the 12 largest counties in California.
S1: And , Kelly , to be clear here , these deaths , there are considered excess deaths , meaning that they're all beyond what we might expect from those who die from old age or natural causes. Can you explain more about what that means ? Correct.
S5: Yes. So analytical consulting. To get at this this county in the number of excess deaths , they use county wide mortality rates to determine what would be the expected number of deaths in each of these county jail systems that they looked at. And so between 2010 and 2020 , you'd expect that around 117 people would die in San Diego jails from various causes. But what the study found was it actually 141 people died. So leaving these 24 excess deaths or they also referred to them as unexplained deaths.
S5: And as far as suicides , there were 31 more than what would be expected between 2010 and 2020. So so in that time frame , there were 40 suicides. And you would expect , according to Cambridge Analytica's data analysis , you'd expect to see only nine during that time.
S1: Let's bring in Union-Tribune columnist Charles Clarke here. Charles , in a way , the public , they're going to be making a decision on how to deal with this as they vote for a new county sheriff. Ballots for the June primary were just mailed out this week. And , Charles , some of this came up in some feedback you got on a recent column. What are you hearing from people ? Right.
S6: So with my recent column , I kind of highlighted , you know , one kind of common thread I see come up with people who are a bit more reluctant to dive into this issue is kind of , well , let's wait and see what happens when a new sheriff comes. You know , I think there's no debate really at this point that it's a problem. But it does seem like there is a bit of a divide about the sense of urgency that exists when it comes to addressing it. With that said , though , what I. Founders. Far more often the response I get from people is that , yeah , they're ready. They back things like federal government intervention. Whether that means a judge compelling the department to get more aggressive , or that actually means appointing an overseer of some kind.
S1: And let's have everyone jump in on this question here. Are you guys seeing anything from the candidates for sheriff that makes you think that they have a plan or at least intend to make this a priority kind of changing this. And Charles , we'll start with you here.
S6: Yeah , I mean , I think there's definitely a clear distinction and tone with how some of the candidates speak about this. Obviously , Dave Meyers has been pretty aggressive in openly speaking about how he sees it as a problem. The thing I kind of caution , though , is I think it's it's a bit of a misstep to assume that one person coming in is going to change this. Right. I think it's pretty clear that the issues run deeper than just who's at the top. I think that was true when Sheriff Gore was there. And I have a feeling it'll be true no matter who succeeds them.
S7: I was wondering , you know , whether you think that voters are aware of this and are paying attention to it. It's something I'm covering the race for KPBS , and I've just started doing interviews with the candidates. But when I talk to voters , it doesn't seem to be really the the first issue on their mind if they're just , you know , an average voter , not not someone who's maybe politically involved or an activist. And I was wondering if if Charles , if if you had heard that from people as well. Yeah.
S6: Yeah. You know , I think that's probably a fair assessment. I mean , obviously , most of the people that I hear from directly write in response to my columns tend to be people who are a bit more engaged. Right. But I do think fundamentally , when you look at the position of sheriff , typically the top priority for people , right , is public safety. And they don't think of it necessarily in the lens of people who are incarcerated. You know , I think that also speaks to kind of a deeper underlying issue with how a lot of us tend to view people who end up in jail or prison in the kind of disregard we may show for them and their well-being. I can't tell you the number of times write that I'd have someone write some iteration of , well , if they didn't want it to happen , they shouldn't have ended up in jail. Right. And then I'm. I adventure. Guess Kelly has probably heard something similar.
S5: Yeah , definitely. Definitely. But I guess maybe within the media bubble , it's become a priority and it comes up in a lot of the candidate forums. And Q&A is that you'll see in , you know , various media. But , you know , it was Charles is right , one person can't fix it. But , you know , I got to say , there were fewer deaths under former Sheriff Collender compared to to Sheriff Gore. And , you know , I spoke to Dave Myers the other week , and he really wants to take a data driven approach to analyze causes of death. You know , how long after booking is are people dying ? Are more people dying during a certain time of day than other time of the day ? So I think that that is is probably the most promising first step I've heard. There's a great book called Life and Death in Rikers Island by Dr. Homer VENTERS. He was the jail's former medical director , and he describes using data to really get at causes of death. And actually , there are fewer people who die at Rikers Island than in San Diego jails. So I think that that says something about , you know , really getting a handle on an issue through data. I think that that would be the first step for any incoming sheriff.
S7: It certainly puts Kelly Martinez in an interesting position because she is running kind of as an establishment candidate. Right. She has the endorsement of outgoing Sheriff Bill Gore , but then at the same time , she's running as a Democrat with the endorsement not of the Democratic Party , but of a number of different like Mayor Todd. Gloria , I think is going to knock on doors with her this weekend. So it seems like she kind of has to then walk a fine line of , you know , saying this is a problem that needs to be addressed , but also not saying , oh , it's all , you know , my predecessors fault or , you know , it's it's interesting. I don't know if if either of you of have heard from her more on kind of how she's addressing it.
S1: And at the same time that all this is happening at the state level , we have a local lawmaker , La mesa , Assemblywoman Akilah Weber. She's trying to pass some legislation on this issue.
S5: And so jails would have would need to have a mental health clinician available at intake to identify folks who might be suffering from mental illness. The legislation would tighten rules around safety checks. Interestingly , the sheriff's department has not taken a position on the law. So as as on the bill. So as A.B. 20 2043 makes its way through the legislative process. You know , the sheriff's department is is just kind of. They haven't said whether they supported or oppose it.
S1: And now turning to KPBS investigative reporter Claire TRAGESER. Claire , you've reported on the various accountability efforts for local law enforcement. Some people may be familiar with the acronym Claire if it comes up regularly. That's the Citizen's Review Board.
S7: They review complaints against sheriff's deputies , I believe. But but recently there have been I think there was a report that came out with suggestions for how to increase its power , including that they could investigate issues with any staff , because that doesn't necessarily include , say , a nurse at the jail or something like that. So that when there are these these deaths there , they're limited in that. And also , I think the report had some suggestions about expanding its its power and its ability to to make investigations more quickly. But , Kelly , maybe you can talk a little bit more about about what they do and and how they're able to work. Yeah.
S5: Yeah. So Claire only has jurisdiction over the sheriff's deputies that work in the jails. They don't have jurisdiction over medical staff. So when they're doing an investigation , they can't weigh in on what medical staff did or didn't do. And they they can't even look at certain records because they don't have the authority. So they're trying to get the authority to do so. That way they could do a complete investigation of of everyone who was involved in that death. What was their role ? Did they do any thing wrong ? But Claire has also been putting out a lot of policy recommendations that they hope will address jail deaths. And just this past Tuesday evening , the board voted to send a recommendation to the sheriff's department that would put Narcan or Naloxone , which is an overdose reversal medication. The recommendation is to make sure that all inmates in the jail have ready access to to naloxone so that if they find one of their fellow inmates has overdosed , they're often the first ones there. They could grab the naloxone and administer it and ideally , you know , save somebody's life.
S1: And then Claire kind of broadening this out a little bit. But where do you think the conversations around criminal justice and bail reform fit into this issue of jail deaths ? Yeah.
S7: I mean , it's interesting. Something that that , you know , that we need to think about is that that that most of these cases involve people who haven't been sentenced to prison. Right. They're in jail. So they may be even awaiting trial or kind of in the midst of their trial , recently arrested , things like that. And there was a story from Calmatters that I looked at the the local numbers where people have just been in jail for years when they're not supposed to be. That's , you know , jail is not set up to to have people be there for for that long. So , you know , I don't know that that that people necessarily always draw that connection , like they might use jail and prison interchangeably or just not really understand what we're talking about here. But , you know , I think that that issues of of bail reform and , you know , arrests and and overall criminal justice reform do tie into this for for the people who are engaged and are paying attention to it.
S1: We're talking with reporter Kelly Davis , who wrote a story about this in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Also , Charles Clarke , a columnist from the U-T , is here and KPBS investigative reporter Claire TRAGESER. And going back to you , Charles , here in the issue , let's talk about the issue of accountability. The death of Omar Ornelas a couple of weeks ago happened just one day after a rally , trying to draw more attention to this problem. Let's first hear a clip from KPBS reporter John Carroll. It's from April 28th. In this , we're also going to hear from Yusef Miller from the North County Equity and Justice Coalition and sheriff's detective Chris Stephan.
S3: Miller says a number of reforms need to happen immediately. We want better protocols for drug rehab and drug interaction. We want better mental health staff , better medical staff. If , in fact , Omar Ornelas did die of a drug overdose , you might think , well , he was doing drugs that's on him. Not so , says Yusef Miller. They have a responsibility to keep drugs out of jail , to make sure that they monitor the. Packages that are coming in. People are coming in. So how did they get the drugs ? It's a failure in the system. Lieutenant Steffan rejects criticism of jail staff. We're trying to figure out how narcotics are getting into the jails and do our best effort to keep that from happening. But the deputies are doing as good a job as they can.
S1: And Charles , you write about a culture that lacks accountability. What made you get to that conclusion ? Right.
S6: Well , really , I kind of base it on three things. One , kind of the history of denial here. Right. You know , spanning years and years , the level of denial about how serious the problem is. I mean , I , I can't tell you how many times I just saw the sheriff's leadership , you know , quibbling over the methodology of these reports. Right. I'm sure , Kelly and you two or four , Jeff McDonald , can attest to that personally. Right. Instead of acknowledging the problem. They more thought about the data. Within that , I also see an issue of transparency. The number of times I'd hear from family members who have , you know , people in jail or lost loved ones in jails and their struggle to get any kind of clarity about what was going on. You know , that that doesn't create a culture that kind of stresses accountability. And then in addition to that , I just point to the fact that we've seen the sheriff's department fight reforms before. Right. Whether it was reforms in jail or reforms with other issues. I mean , one of the most formative experiences I've had as a reporter in San Diego came back in 2019 , right. The year before George Floyd was murdered on camera. And our sheriff's department , you know , the deputies association , went out of their way to get the county involved , fighting Shirley Webber's police use of force bill. Again , that doesn't speak to a culture that embraces accountability.
S1: And also in that clip , we heard from Yusef Miller about the need for more resources. A few weeks ago here on KPBS Roundtable , we talked with Lisa Halberstadt from Voice of San Diego on some of the recruiting problems that the City of San Diego is having. And a lot of it is tied to our high cost of living in San Diego. Not to get too off track from the topic at hand , but do you think that this shows maybe just how complicated and interconnected these problems can be and will open up to anybody who wants to respond ? Charles , I don't know if you want to go first here. Sure.
S6: Sure. I mean , I again , this is part of why I've always said that. I thought it goes beyond one person. Right. That there is a complex web here. But I do worry a bit about focusing in on an issue like that as kind of a distraction from some of the other things we can do. Right. I mean , it seems pretty clear between what we saw laid out by the auditor or even from club itself , that there are moves we can make that do seem tangible , even with some of those obstacles.
S5: A lot of them are , or I think nearly all of them are working a lot of overtime. And the same goes with medical staff in the union that represents jail medical workers has urged someone to kind of look into the issue of whether deaths are happening when the jail is not fully staffed or when a significant number of medical staff are working overtime. I know a lot of times they're assigned to do two things. So you might have somebody who is acting as the charge nurse for a shift , but that person is also assigned to the psychiatric security unit. You know , those are two very intense jobs. And you're you're working a 12 hour shift where you've got to juggle both of those things. Yeah. So I think it's definitely one of the issues is , is , is lack of staff. And unfortunately , there's this vicious cycle where staff leave because they're overwhelmed , which then causes more staff to leave. And no one wants to accept a job where right off the bat they're going to be facing , you know , mandatory overtime. Well , yeah.
S7: And I mean , you know , we mentioned the cost of living in San Diego , which I think plays plays a part of it. And , you know , police and law enforcement don't have the best reputation right now. So I know that they are also having trouble recruiting people , you know , simply simply because of that. So it's a huge combination of all of these things that are really , you know , making it making it difficult for people. And as you mentioned , the cost of housing , I'm sure , is also , you know , doesn't help.
S1: And Charles , going to you now , it's important to point out here that this is not just a problem inside of men's jails. We've seen that's become a problem for women as well. Can you tell us about what's happening there ? Right.
S6: Well , I mean , I think it's pretty clear that it's indiscriminate. You know , we certainly hear about cases from there as well. You know , obviously , the case for listeners , probably one that I think is most haunting for a lot of people. She was the pregnant woman who jailed nurse and deputy checked on her after she hit her head and they just kind of left her there even though she was unresponsive. And an hour later she was found dead in the same position. So it's certainly a problem that , you know , I don't think discriminates based on gender here.
S1: And Kelli , at the top , we mentioned that you've been on this issue for a long time covering it. And we actually have an example. We went into the CFPB's archives and found an appearance that you made back in 2013 on KPBS Evening Edition. You painted a picture of what happened to an older inmate in 2011. Let's listen to that clip.
S2: This latest article called Unprotected Custody actually begins with the death of Russell Hartzell , as you said. Tell us a little bit about him and how he died.
S5: Is a 70 year old man of very physically and mentally ill. He had been in protective custody. And even within protective custody , there's a there's a further designation called called keep separate all. So it's basically to protect the most vulnerable inmates from from other inmates. And he had been in protective custody , apparently made a request to to get out of it. We're not quite sure of the process. What was determined that that allowed him to be put back into the general population. But shortly after that , he was transferred into a dorm like cell with a group of inmates who took him to be a child molester. He was not.
S2: Mistakenly took him mistakenly.
S5: And within two or 3 hours of him being transferred into that that cell or that that module , he was he was beaten to death. And it's just a really gruesome reading about how he died was not you know , it was very odd a.
S2: 70 year old man beat to death by a group of inmates because he was mistakenly thought to be a child molester.
S1: And that was former Evening Edition host Peggy Pico conducting that interview. KELLY That was nearly a decade ago.
S5: Man , you know , it's just it's it's deeply upsetting. I think about Russell Hard saw a lot and some and I get a little choked up sometimes when I talk about him because his death was what really motivated me to want to investigate this subject. And , you know , over the years , 2013 was the first time I started reporting on this. Every time I thought that the jails had a handle on this issue , you know , several months would go by and no one would die. Or I remember there is a period of time where they had , you know , quite a few suicides and then a period of time where they had no suicides. And I was like , I took a tour of the jails to see what they were doing. I was like , Hey , guys , you know , this is awesome. I'm going to write a story about how you really solved your suicide problem. And then there was a spate of suicides and that that year ended up with with six suicide deaths the most of any year so far. So , you know , it's it's I think the jails need to make some drastic changes. I think there needs to be a whole overhaul of the whole culture. And , you know , going back to what I mentioned earlier , really a deep dive into every every piece of data that is available to try to to to , you know , put some some numbers to the issue and figure out where , you know , things could be fixed using that data.
S1: And before we go here , Charles , you mentioned that this is a very well-known problem. Kelly talked about , you know , changes needed.
S6: You know how much longer it takes for us to get there is the question. But it does certainly feel like we're kind of reaching a breaking point , right , where you're seeing more action. I am encouraged by what I would describe as , you know , kind of that class action suit that we've seen come out that seems to be directly asking. Right. For a federal judge to step in and compel action. You know , I know that's got a kind of a complicated record , but it is something that's been used in other places and it has been successful in the situations right where the county embraced it. That seems to be the pivotal thing is federal intervention , usually appointing an overseer or something else combined with the county , embracing that right and kind of accepting that , hey , we might be a little out of our depth here. Let's partner up and do something because you know.
S5: Exactly right. Charles is exactly right. Yeah.
S1: And we're going to have to end it on that. It's been a great discussion. I want to thank all of you. Kelly Davis and Charles Clarke from the San Diego Union-Tribune and Claire TRAGESER from KPBS News. We mentioned earlier that. Ballots went out this week for the June 7th primary election. KPBS can help you get organized and learn about the candidates with the KPBS Voter Hub. It's customizable to your address to match your ballot with information on candidates voting centers and even drop off sites. And new this year , a Spanish language version. Just go to and click on the Voter Hub link at the top of our homepage. I'm Matt Hoffman and we'll be back next week on Roundtable.

Civil Rights San Diego Sheriff Presser In Custody Deaths Jails
Kitty Alvarado
Shane Harris, president of the People's Association of Justice Advocates, and civil rights leaders hold news conference in front of San Diego County Sheriff's Department headquarters after meeting with Interim Sheriff Anthony Ray about the high number of in custody jail deaths.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion with San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kelly Davis and columnist Charles Clark along with KPBS reporter Claire Trageser on the high number of deaths in local jails run by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. A new study shows local jails lead all California counties in the number of excess deaths. Activists are calling for additional reforms to address a problem that has persisted for years. Next month, local voters will cast a vote for a new sheriff in the 2022 primary election.