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Complaint lodged against San Diego sheriff over jail health, safety

Allegations made to the civilian oversight board include overflowing toilets, racial insensitivity and lack of sanitation gear for inmates


Eduardo Contreras

By Jeff McDonald
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Numerous men locked inside the George Bailey Detention Facility have become sickened after being forced to clean up human waste that regularly overflows from the jail’s aging plumbing, a new complaint to the civilian oversight board alleges.

At least two people have contracted staph infections, the complaint adds.

“They believe it’s from having to clean up feces and urine when the toilets overflow, which is twice a week,” said community advocate Laila Aziz, who filed the complaint Thursday with the San Diego County Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board.

“The waste is from all of the toilets,” wrote Aziz, a director at the Pillars of the Community nonprofit. “They are saying the guards force them to clean up the waste and they have no protective equipment including gloves.”

Pillars of the Community is a southeast San Diego charity that is dedicated to promoting diversity and reforming the criminal-justice system.

The complaint also says that last week, on the kitchen’s chicken-and-waffles day, incarcerated people were served darkened waffles stamped with faces with exaggerated features that many found racist, comparing them to blackface and appending a photo.

Meals served at the George Bailey jail are produced at the nearby East Mesa Reentry Facility. The waffles were distributed early last week, Aziz said. It is not clear if they were made by staff, contractors or incarcerated people.

“It’s created an uproar across the jail,” Aziz said.

The complaint also says the Otay Mesa jail is not properly secured from outside animals.

“There are also birds which fly throughout the jail and defecate on the detainees and their food,” Aziz wrote. “When they are at the phones speaking with loved ones, most say they have been defecated on.”

Aziz also said a man recently sentenced to one year in jail now has mpox, a disease previously known as monkeypox, and people in custody are worried for their health if he is booked into custody later this month.

“Detainees in medical and jail along with their families are expressing concern,” she wrote in the complaint.

The sheriff’s department declined to respond to the specific allegations.

“The complaint you sent has not been received by our department via CLERB (Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board) or any other official channel,” the department said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we take the allegations seriously and they will be investigated.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the allegations or investigation at this time,” the statement said.

Review board Executive Officer Paul Parker said his office already has opened an investigation. His staff began planning interviews with the men involved in the various accusations Friday.

“We will identify next steps after talking to them and determining the extent of our jurisdiction,” Parker said by email.

“If for whatever reason we cannot interview the witnesses, we will request applicable documentation from the (sheriff’s department) in the areas under which we have apparent jurisdiction,” he added.

Parker said if deputies were found responsible for any of the alleged problems, the findings would be reported out accordingly.

The review board jurisdiction is limited to sworn deputies and probation officers, so any finding that other employees, vendors or people in custody were responsible for any violations would be outside the panel’s purview.

Donald Specter is the executive director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public-interest law firm based in Berkeley. He said it is hard to tell how pervasive complaints like these are, but they need to be taken seriously.

“The remedy for the first issue is obvious: the toilets have to be repaired and the people who are incarcerated shouldn’t be forced to clean the waste, especially without the right sanitation equipment,” Specter said.

“The second and third issues need to be investigated,” he added.

The sheriff’s department has been the subject of multiple allegations of improper jail practices related to the men and women in its custody.

More than 200 people have died in local jails since 2006, according to a state audit and internal sheriff’s department records, including 12 people so far this year.

District Attorney Summer Stephan filed criminal charges against a jail doctor and nurse last year in response to the 2019 death of Elisa Serna. Serna died at the Las Colinas women’s jail after being left alone on the floor of her cell after suffering a seizure.

San Diego County has been repeatedly sued by people injured by deputy negligence or family members of those who died behind bars, including the Serna family. The litigation has cost taxpayers more than $60 million in recent years.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in custody and their relatives told The San Diego Union-Tribune that deputies were not wearing masks or other protective gear.

They also complained they were being housed with infected people and denied soap or other cleaning supplies to help keep them safe.

“No one is cleaning or disinfecting the area tables, phones, etc., so it’s putting other people at risk,” said Christy Boudreau, whose brother was in jail in 2020.

This past June, the county agreed to settle a pair of unrelated lawsuits brought by civil-rights lawyers on behalf of detainees who complained about the sheriff’s handling of COVID-19 and of disabled men and women in custody.

In each case, the department agreed to a series of reforms without paying money damages.

To resolve the case alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the sheriff agreed to upgrade plumbing, bunks and other infrastructure to accommodate people in wheelchairs or are otherwise unable to use existing facilities.

In settling the lawsuit over COVID-19, the department pledged to make prompt determinations on whether people being booked into custody are at higher risk of getting sick and to place higher-risk people in more protective housing.

Officials also agreed to broaden testing, notify subjects of results, distribute masks consistent with federal health standards and ensure regular access to soap and cleaning supplies.

According to the Aziz complaint, access to soap, cleaning supplies and protective gear remains a challenge.

The sheriff’s department no longer publishes information about how many men and women in custody have been infected with — or killed by — COVID-19 since the pandemic was declared in 2020.

According to its website, however, the department had nine active cases of the disease as of Thursday.

Over the past three-plus years, more than 3,500 department employees contracted COVID-19 and recovered. Three of them died.


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