The central jail in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

A grand jury report released Tuesday found San Diego County’s detention facilities to generally be clean, albeit slightly aged for their current use, and found no evidence of inmate mistreatment or negligence on the part of the Sheriff’s and Probation departments but recommends improvements in mental health treatment for inmates.

According to the 2018/2019 grand jury’s report, inmates in the Sheriff’s Department’s seven facilities and the Probation Department’s three facilities usually had access to medical, dental and mental health care. However, at some facilities, access to care depended on when providers visited the specific facility.

The panel inspected both adult and juvenile detention centers for the report.

“This year the grand jury focused on mental health issues in jails, including the issue of suicides,” the panel said in a statement. “The grand jury was impressed by the programs for rehabilitation and reentry for inmates returning to society.”

The county’s detention system has drawn national attention over the last year due to a spate of in-custody deaths and suicides, including four deaths across a six-week span earlier this year. Since 2008, more than $7 million in lawsuit settlements has been paid to families of inmates who died in custody.

More than 120 inmates have died in a county jail since 2007, 30 of which were suicides, according to the report. Last year, four inmates committed suicide at jails around the county.

The grand jury found that the San Diego Central Jail, Vista Detention Facility and the South Bay Detention Facility are outdated for their current use as jails for long-term inmates. The three facilities were originally built for booking and holding people who committed misdemeanors and inmates awaiting a court hearing.

Assembly Bill 109, which went into effect in 2011, diverted certain convicted felons to county jails rather than state prisons, where they had traditionally been held. Because of AB 109, the three facilities named in the report are now considered inadequate because they were never intended to hold inmates with long-term sentences.

The San Diego Central Jail is also the county’s largest mental health facility, with nearly 200 beds reserved for inmates in need of significant mental health care. The Central Jail also holds many inmates who are declared mentally unfit to stand trial. According to the grand jury, many inmates with significant mental health issues would generally be sent to a state facility, but those are already strained and have little room for new patients.

Roughly 30% of the county’s inmates are currently on some sort of prescribed psychotropic drug, according to the report and San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore. While inmates’ mental health is generally screened at the Central, Vista and Las Colinas jails, the panel found that the county struggles to retain and recruit psychiatrists and psychiatric care professionals.

The grand jury recommended that the Sheriff’s Department replace vent covers at South Bay Detention Facility, which an inmate used to hang himself last year, as soon as possible. The department was also advised to consider centralizing its mental health treatment to a dedicated facility rather than the county jail system.

Both the Sheriff’s and Probation departments are advised to study and consider transportation options for families of inmates at the four county detention facilities in Otay Mesa. Public transit is lacking to the area, the report found, with Metropolitan Transit System bus services terminating more than five miles away and the closest trolley station more than 10 miles away.

–City News Service

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