Central jail in downtown San Diego
The central jail on Front Street in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will launch a pilot project to monitor inmates believed to be in danger of suffering a medical emergency while in jail.

Officials called the technology, to be tested at the downtown San Diego Central Jail, “a key component in our comprehensive improvement plan,” in a Thursday news release. It will be used, on a consensual basis, on 10 of the most at-risk inmates. 

The decision to create a pilot program follows a number of in-custody deaths, which have prompted lawsuits and pointed criticism of the department, which patrols the county’s jails.

The state issued a critical report in February noting 185 San Diego County jail deaths over the 14-year period that ended in 2020. The document faulted the sheriff’s department for its “inadequate response to deaths.” The department took steps swiftly, within six weeks outlining various changes to the jail system.

Yet the incidents have continued over the past eight months. One inmate, 33, died in September, and two, ages 64 and 31, died in May. Another man, 46, died in March. There have been deaths at other county jails as well.

In the Thursday news release, the department explained that the sheriff’s Data Services Division and the Detentions Services Bureau identified technology for the pilot program that officials compared to commercial fitness devices for monitoring heart rates. Called Custody Protect, the product, developed in early 2021, is offered by software company 4Sight Labs in San Francisco.

San Diego County Sheriff
4Sight Labs notes a collaboration with T-Mobile for Custody Protect, a technology being used in a sheriff’s department pilot project. Photo credit: Screen shot, 4sightlabs.com

But use of such a device in custodial settings, sheriff’s officials explained, requires that it be tamper proof and designed in a manner that does not pose security risks.

The devices, which cost $1,000 a unit, give deputies and medical staff the ability to monitor inmates’ vitals and movement. They will be alerted via app if there is a change in a person’s condition.

The sheriff’s department said it has worked to establish policies and best practices to launch the program. Officials thus far have identified challenges related to battery life, the size of the device and the increased staff time needed to support the program, but said that there is “potential” for expansion.

“We hope this pilot program proves effective in supporting our existing security and wellness checks and other monitoring programs,” officials said in the statement. “It will not replace any of our current policies.”