'Long way to go': Lawyers, families discuss San Diego County jail conditions
A lawsuit accuses the county and the sheriff's department of failing to provide adequate medical and mental healthcare in the jail
By Caleb Lunetta
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — Cheryl Canson stood at a town hall meeting in Chula Vista last week holding a poster board decorated with pictures of her family.
While speaking to about 15 attendees — some of whom participated via Zoom — she said two of her sons are in San Diego County jail, they each suffer from mental health issues and she was worried about their safety.
"The mentally ill are not being heard and so they end up in prison and in jails," Canson said. "I see their stories and their need for mental health treatment is not being addressed adequately. Their illness is exacerbated because of the toxic environment."
The town hall, hosted jointly by the Racial Justice Coalition and the North County Equity Justice Coalition, provided an update on an ongoing lawsuit against San Diego County and the Sheriff's Department, accusing both of failing to provide adequate medical and mental healthcare in the county jail, as well as several other causes of action.
San Diego County jails have been under scrutiny in recent years because of a high rate of in-custody deaths — 185 in 15 years. The Union-Tribune's 2019 series "Dying Behind Bars" revealed the mortality rate in San Diego jails was the highest among large counties in the state.
Many of those deaths were the result of suicides and drug overdoses, and many of the people involved were dealing with mental illness. In some cases the deaths were the result of homicides.
After a lengthy investigation, the state auditor issued a report in February 2022 in which it found the Sheriff's Department had repeatedly failed to prevent and respond to the deaths.
Two people in sheriff's custody have died in jail so far this year. Last year a record 19 people died in sheriff's custody, and a 20th person died hours after he was released from custody for medical reasons.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Diego, lists 14 plaintiffs — people currently and formerly held in county jail — and contends that in addition to providing poor healthcare within the jail facilities run by the Sheriff's Department, the county also provided poor living conditions, said Gay Crosthwait Grunfeld, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case.
The plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit that the county failed to provide reasonable accommodations to incarcerated people with disabilities, and failed to ensure the safety and security of incarcerated people. They also claim that "unnecessary and dangerous detention practices in San Diego County" disproportionately harm Black and Latino people, according to court documents.
" San Diego County residents are unnecessarily suffering and dying in the county's jail facilities due to extraordinarily dangerous and deadly conditions, policies and practices that have been allowed to persist for many years," the complaint reads.
A third amended complaint was filed in 2022.
Grunfeld said she toured San Diego Central Jail last week, just hours before the town hall meeting. The attorney took the tour as part of the discovery process related to the lawsuit and was approved by a magistrate judge in federal court.
"I would say that my impression, having spent part of the day there, is that there's really a long, long way to go in that facility," the attorney said during the town hall. "We toured with a captain, our expert and the county's expert, and all I can say is that it's a very difficult environment."
Earlier this month, newly-elected Sheriff Kelly Martinez talked about changes the department has made over the last year to better meet the needs of mentally ill people in custody, including working to get them into conservatorships if needed.
Martinez, didn't speak directly about the death of 46-year-old Lonnie Rupard, who was found unresponsive in a filthy jail cell in downtown San Diego. But her comments came a day after the Medical Examiner's Office determined that Rupard's death was a homicide and cited "ineffective" care of the mentally ill man in jail as a factor.
The Medical Examiner's Office said Rupard died of pneumonia, malnutrition and dehydration, accompanied by "neglected schizophrenia."
Asked to comment on the lawsuit, Lt. Amber Baggs, a Sheriff's Department spokesperson, reiterated that the department, under Martinez, is continuing to make improvements the jail system.
"The Sheriff's Department has been diligently working to implement changes in our detention facilities to ensure the safety, health and well-being of people in our custody," Baggs said in a statement.
She also said Martinez's administration has "embraced" the findings of the state audit.
Grunfeld said that when she toured the downtown jail on March 13, she saw inadequate ways for inmates to call for help and that many of the intercom systems were broken. She also said the jail still housed three inmates in vertical bunks, a practice that has been reduced in many California prisons.
"A person in a wheelchair can't get into a triple bunk, even the bottom bunk," Grunfeld said. "The facilities are not (American Disabilities Act) compliant and we're going to ask the court to get that started ...
"The county and the Sheriff's Department are burying their heads in the sand and they continue to deflect responsibility, fight our lawsuit, make big promises without any time frame, timeline or concrete action," the attorney continued. "The mistreatment of people in the county's jails is unconstitutional, unlawful and immoral."
Baggs acknowledged that there was triple bunking in San Diego County facilities, but that they were being phased out. She added that Martinez had approved an Americans with Disabilities Act unit to address problems within local jails.
Sheriff's deputies, medical and mental health professionals, a compliance manager and a facility project manager will work to ensure inmates with disabilities have equal treatment, Baggs said.
"Already existing staff positions within the Sheriff's budget were modified to create this much needed unit. It is the Sheriff's goal to have this new unit operational by the start of Fall 2023," the lieutenant said in the statement.
Additionally, the Sheriff's Department has rolled out body-worn cameras for correctional officers and said the county is working to improve the communication and wireless systems within jails. The body-worn cameras are currently available for deputies in two of the six county jails.
Lon Chhay, who spent 22 years of his life in and out of the San Diego legal system, said at the town hall meeting that beatings and mistreatment were a regular part of his life.
"I was in modules with people with mental health issues, and they would just throw them in there without any supervision," Chhay said. "And you could just tell, just by looking, that this person doesn't belong in this module."
Baggs said the Sheriff's Department is testing a biometric scanner in jails that will determine when a person is in medical distress. She added that multi-disciplinary groups conduct one-on-one wellness checks with individuals in the jails who are deemed "most vulnerable."
These checks are done twice a week at George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa and three times a week at the Central Jail in downtown San Diego. They are conducted once a week at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee as well as the Vista Detention Facility.
During the town hall, Sundee Weddle said her when her son, Saxon Rodriguez, 22, "survived" Central Jail the first time. The second time he was jailed, he was found unresponsive in his cell on July 20, 2021, four days after he was arrested.
Rodriguez died from what was later determined to be a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose.
Last year, the independent review board that provides oversight of the Sheriff's Department faulted the entire department for failing to keep illegal drugs out of its jails.
While investigators were unable to pinpoint how the drugs made it into the jail, "the evidence indicated that either sworn ( Sheriff's Department) personnel and/or non-sworn... personnel failed to prevent illicit drugs from entering the detention facility," the review board said.
The Sheriff's Department has recently installed dispensers containing naloxone, also known by the brand name as Narcan, in the jails. The medication is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Baggs said the department is employing several methods to prevent drugs from getting into the jails, including starting an enhanced intake process to test for drug use, and bringing in new toilets and large search mirrors to prevent contraband from being hidden in restrooms or under benches during booking.
The department continues to make other changes, but some families and advocates for the people who are incarcerated say the changes haven't happened soon enough.
"There are still so many overdoses, but I am grateful they've allowed the inmates access to Narcan," said Weddle. "I wish it had been available when (my son) was there."
A status conference in the case is set for April 14 in U.S. District Court.