Families of deceased Calif. county inmates demand action following state audit
In a scathing report released Thursday, auditors said San Diego County jails are unsafe and their operations deficient
By Lauryn Schroeder
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — In the wake of a state audit that deemed San Diego County jails unsafe, community activists and the families of deceased inmates gathered Friday in front of the San Diego Sheriff's Department to demand action.
"The audit report from the state on the San Diego County's in-custody deaths is appalling," said Yusef Miller, of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego. "We're not here gloating about the report. We're here in frustration that it took this report for any traction to really actually happen."
On Thursday, the California State Auditor released a scathing report analyzing San Diego County Sheriff's Department practices and the 185 deaths that have occurred in its jails over the past 15 years.
Auditors determined county jails are unsafe and their operations deficient, and recommended tougher oversight of the Sheriff's Department and improvements to statewide correctional care standards.
"Our review identified deficiencies with how the Sheriff's Department provides care for and protects incarcerated individuals, which likely contributed to in‑custody deaths," wrote Michael Tilden, acting state auditor. "These deficiencies related to its provision of medical and mental health care and its performance of visual checks to ensure the safety and health of individuals in its custody."
In particular, the audit said the Sheriff's Department "did not consistently follow up with" inmates who needed medical and mental health services, and concluded that lack of attention may have contributed to their deaths.
The report noted that when deputies did check up on inmates, these "safety checks" often amounted to inadequate glances that sometimes missed inmates in distress.
Sabrina Weddle said deputies failed to perform regular checks on her brother, Saxon Rodriguez, who died of a fentanyl overdose in a San Diego jail. He was 22 years old.
"The detective told me my brother was last accounted for and alive at 7 a.m. and found [dead] at 10," Weddle said. "That's a three-hour gap. What were they doing? Where were they at?"
Weddle said she blames Sheriff Bill Gore and his staff for not adequately caring for her brother and demands change within the department.
"These deputies are adult babysitters, and they're not doing their job properly," she said.
Rodriguez's mother, Sundee Weddle, said she and her family have tried to get more information about her son's death, including video surveillance, but the Sheriff's Department has not been transparent.
"I feel like they want to wear us down so that we'll be quiet and go away," Weddle said. "But I'm not able to do that because Saxon meant everything to me, and I'm going to get closure.
"I'm going to get answers and I'm going to get justice for my son."
Tammy Wilson, whose husband, Omar Moreno Arroya, died in a county jail, said she's had similar experiences trying to get access to information.
Wilson said she has requested video surveillance, audio of the 911 call and the police report surrounding Arroya's death, but her requests were denied.
"Why can't I get closure? Why can't I know what happened to my husband?" Wilson asked. "This is devastating. It's not fair. My life has forever been changed."
In a written response, Sheriff's Department officials agreed with some of the audit's findings but questioned the data methodology of the independent reviewers.
They also said San Diego is not much different from other counties when it comes to people dying behind bars and stressed that they are making strides toward reducing in-custody deaths.
"The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has taken appropriate and reasonable measures to prevent and respond to deaths of individuals in custody," the department response states.
"The Auditor's conclusion that the in-custody deaths were the result of inadequate medical care is misleading," it adds.
In the report, auditors rebutted the response, calling some parts "disingenuous."
Auditors said legislation requiring the Sheriff's Department to implement their recommendations may be the only way to fix the long-standing issues.
At Friday's gathering, Miller and many of the family members called for state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom to adhere to the audit's recommendations and ensure incarcerated individuals receive adequate care and protection.
"It's a hard fight, no doubt," Miller said. "We've been fighting this for decades ... We want the [California Attorney General] to get involved to enforce and push for change in legislation, and the governor to support those changes so we can get a change of culture."
A San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found the mortality rate in San Diego County jails was significantly higher than other large counties in the state.
The series, along with a rising number of complaints from constituents about in-custody deaths, led a group of San Diego County legislators to commission the state audit report, which examined deaths in local jails between 2006 and 2020.
Assemblywoman Dr. Akilah Weber, a La Mesa Democrat who requested the audit, indicated Thursday that she may introduce a bill to require the Sheriff's Department to adopt the suggested reforms.
In a joint statement with Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, Weber called the findings "deeply disturbing" and said the two lawmakers are committed to accountability and ensuring the recommendations are implemented.
©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.