Advocates for jail reform called Thursday on San Diego County to address alleged shortfalls in its jail policies, which they say have failed to prevent detainees from dying while in custody at high rates.
At a news conference held just before a hearing in a federal lawsuit seeking an immediate overhaul of county and sheriff department policies regarding inmate care, attorneys and family members of those who have died in San Diego County jails said immediate action was needed to curb the frequency of in-custody deaths.
Priyah Kaul, one of the attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuit against the county, sheriff’s department and others, said five people died in the month of July alone and the county was on pace to exceed the 18 deaths from last year.
According to the lawsuit, the county’s jail death rate exceeds the rates of other large California counties and the nation at large.
The high frequency of deaths also prompted a California State Auditor investigation that found deficiencies in the sheriff’s department’s policies and practices regarding inmate safety checks, mental health treatment and staff responses to emergencies.
One criminal prosecution is ongoing in connection with the 2019 death of 24-year-old Elisa Serna at the Las Colinas jail in Santee. A nurse is facing an involuntary manslaughter charge for allegedly failing to promptly seek medical attention for Serna after she fell at the jail.
The injunction being sought would require the sheriff’s department to focus on prevention of drug overdoses in the jails, ensuring timely safety checks for those in solitary confinement, fixing broken intercoms and video cameras to ensure staff are aware of emergencies, prioritizing housing recommendations made by mental health clinicians, providing confidential mental health care and providing safe and accessible housing for people with disabilities.
Kaul said county leadership has done little to address the issues.
“They continue to bury their heads in the sand. They continue to deflect responsibility. They continue to make empty promises without any meaningful change on a concrete timeline,” Kaul said.
In court, Susan Coleman, an attorney representing the county, said the requests do not take into account changes and improvements that have already begun at county jail facilities.
Regarding allegations that broken intercom systems have led to slow responses to inmates suffering from medical emergencies, Coleman said audio and video systems within the jails have been upgraded and weekly audits are conducted to ensure the systems are functioning properly.
She said the jails have also utilized body scanners, drug dogs and testing to address drugs flowing into the jails, but said fentanyl can often be transported into jails in amounts that are “microscopic” and thus, difficult to detect.
Mental health clinicians’ input on inmate housing are taken into consideration, but safety and disciplinary concerns also play a role in those decisions, she said.
Van Swearingin, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, which include several incarcerated people, said his clients’ experiences contradict the county’s claims that conditions have improved.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia took the matter under submission and will issue a ruling at a later time.
Several family members of people who have died over the past few years in county jails spoke at the news conference held prior to the hearing. A common refrain was that their loves ones’ deaths were preventable.
Tammy Wilson, wife of former Julian resident Omar Moreno Arroyo, who died in January of 2021, said that when her husband was undergoing a mental health crisis and refused to go to a hospital, “I did what I’ve been taught since I was a child” and she called 911.
Sheriff’s deputies responded and arrested Arroyo. Less than a day later, Arroyo choked to death on a face mask while in a holding cell.
“A mental health crisis here in San Diego should not equal a death sentence, but more often that not, as we see, that seems to be the case,” Wilson said.
Sabrina Weddle, whose brother Saxon Rodriguez died in July of 2021 from a fentanyl overdose, said “Clearly, the San Diego sheriff’s (department) does not have what it takes to keep these people safe.”
Elisa Serna’s sister, Deana, said Serna asked for medical attention repeatedly during her weeklong incarceration, but staff refused to help her.
“We’re begging for help. This needs to end,” she said.
City News Service contributed to this article.