San Diego jails fail to curb inmate deaths; Alameda County has highest in-custody death payout

Inmate deaths in San Diego County jails have ranked among the highest in California for the past 15 years and authorities have consistently failed to address the problem, according to an independent review released Thursday by the state auditor that recommended intervention by the Legislature.

From 2006 through 2020, 185 people died in San Diego County’s jails — one of the highest totals in California.

To compare, Riverside County has had 104 in-custody deaths, Orange County has had 111 deaths and Alameda County has had 99 deaths in that same time period. 

Per capita, San Diego has the highest rate of in-custody deaths and Alameda County ranks fifth statewide. 

In terms of legal settlements over these deaths, Alameda County ranked the highest with $17 million paid out during those same years, San Diego County paid out nearly $9 million, Orange County paid out nearly $8 million, and Riverside County paid out nearly $4 million, the auditor found. 

The review requested by lawmakers found that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department failed to adequately assess inmates’ physical and mental health, which it said likely contributed to the deaths. Corrections officers also did not visually check enough on inmates to ensure their safety.

A citizen‑governed board approved by San Diego County voters to restore public confidence in county law enforcement also failed to investigate nearly one‑third of the inmate deaths that happened over the past 15 years, according to the report.

That means that dozens of deaths did not get scrutinized with a key form of review conducted outside of the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county jails, according to Acting California State Auditor Michael S. Tilden.

Tilden called on the Legislature to step in immediately to ensure that changes to the jails are made "in light of the ongoing risk to inmate safety, the Sheriff’s Department’s inadequate response to deaths, and the lack of effective independent oversight," according to a letter from Tilden to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders.

San Diego County has faced numerous lawsuits from families of inmates who have died over the years.

In November, a county jail nurse was charged with involuntary manslaughter after being accused of walking away from a 24-year-old inmate who collapsed in front of her on a cell floor before the inmate died.

The sheriff’s department said in a statement that it supports the report’s recommendations and that they "align with our existing practices, current and future plans, as well as proactive efforts to continuously improve health care services and the safety of our jails."

"We participated and cooperated throughout the entire process," the statement said. "We take the findings of the audit seriously and are taking action to implement the recommendations."

The department said it was in the process of hiring more staff for its jails, especially nurses, and it is also planning on renovating its detention facilities.

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It also is adding medication-assisted treatment programs and mental health evaluations for incoming inmates when they are booked into its jails and the department is looking at ways to use technology for better checks on inmates and their welfare.

Similar changes may soon be coming to Santa Rita Jail, operated by the Alameda County Sheriff by way of a legal "consent decree." 

A federal magistrate is now considering an agreement between Alameda County and attorneys seeking better mental health care for those incarcerated at the county jail. A decision could come any day.

KTVU's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.