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Deputies wrongly allowed drugs into San Diego County jails, civilian oversight board finds

The findings are the latest in a series of independent investigations that have blamed the sheriff’s department and its staff for contributing to San Diego County jail deaths

San Diego County Jail

A doorway in one of the holding cells at downtown Central Jail in San Diego. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nelvin C. Cepeda /TNS

By Jeff McDonald
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The civilian oversight board that examines complaints against the Sheriff’s Department has sustained two more findings of deputy misconduct over two recent deaths in San Diego County jails.

In a report considered by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board late last week, investigators said jail guards were partly responsible for the deaths last year of Ryan Patrick Thuresson and Joshua Fosbinder in 2022.

“Although SDSD (San Diego Sheriff’s Department) has implemented and taken measures to deter drugs from entering their jails, Fosbinder acquired fentanyl which consequently contributed to his death,” the review board report said.

“Despite all interdiction efforts, there is no doubt that Fosbinder, while an incarcerated person in the custody and under the care of the SDSD, acquired and took fentanyl, which contributed to his death,” investigators said.

The review board issued virtually the same finding after examining Thuresson’s death inside the Vista Detention Facility in February 2023, about four months after his arrest.

“Ultimately, this investigation was unable to determine how the decedent obtained the drugs which contributed to his death,” the report said. “However, the evidence did indicate the decedent consumed illicit drugs while he was in the custody of SDSD.

“The evidence supports the allegation and the act or conduct was not justified,” investigators said.

The findings are the latest in a long-running series of independent investigations that have blamed the Sheriff’s Department and its staff for contributing to San Diego County jail deaths.

Sheriff Kelley Martinez and her predecessors have said for years that they are doing everything they can to protect people in county jails.

But people keep dying in custody, and taxpayers continue to pay for negligence or misconduct committed by deputies, records show.

Department officials are now pursuing a multiyear, nearly $500 million upgrade in the county jails. They have also hired additional doctors, nurses and mental health providers and now spend more than $100 million a year on the healthcare for the 4,000 or so people in custody any given day.

The sheriff has rejected one persistent recommendation from the civilian oversight board, the county grand jury, the California State Auditor and others: body-scanning deputies whenever they enter jail facilities. Martinez has said the practice is not needed.

A semi-truck trailer has been retrofitted into a mobile workshop where prisoners can get trained in technical careers and skilled trades using hands-on simulators
The changes are modeled after prison operations in Norway, where incarceration is considered less a tool for punishment than an opportunity for rehabilitation

The department has numerous methods of preventing drugs from getting into jails, and there is no evidence deputies have been involved in smuggling illegal drugs or other contraband into county jails, officials said.

“We have developed a strategy to plug the gaps in our security that might allow drugs to enter our facilities,” officials wrote in a response to the oversight board released earlier this year. “This includes searches, investigations, intelligence gathering, body scanners and drug-detecting K-9s, among other measures.

“This comprehensive strategy has reduced drugs entering our facilities to almost zero,” the response added.

At least one of the six in-custody deaths so far this year involved the use of Narcan, a drug designed to reverse the effect of an opioid overdose, indicating that drugs continue to find their way into county jails.

Twice in recent years, deputies have been arrested and charged with drug-related crimes on jail property. Both deputies were convicted and relieved of their Sheriff’s Department duties.

More than 240 men and women have died in San Diego County jails since 2006, department records and outside reviews show.

Six people have died in local jails so far this year, including a 42-year-old man who was found unresponsive on the floor of a shower at the San Diego Central Jail on Wednesday.

The case remains under investigation, and no cause of death has been released. A lawyer who represents plaintiffs suing the county said she believed the death was due to improper treatment of withdrawal symptoms.

Deaths in San Diego County jails continue to generate criticism from family members of people who have died in custody, and activists who want review board members and other public officials to do more to protect people in jail.

“The drug overdoses are not the issue; the access to drugs while in custody is the issue,” said Yusef Miller of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition. “We need to make sure that all staff are scanned for drugs.”

David Settles, whose brother Matthew died by suicide at the George Bailey Detention Facility two years ago despite a long history of mental illness, said the Sheriff’s Department needs to do better in meeting the healthcare needs of the people inside its county jails.

“(Matthew) did not get the treatment he needed; that’s why he is not here,” Settles said. “Over and over, we are kind of hearing the same story, so we do need improvement.”

The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board is charged with monitoring both the Sheriff’s and Probation departments. The volunteer board is supported by a staff of 10 people and a $2 million.

The oversight board is also searching for a successor to former Executive Officer Paul Parker , who resigned in frustration earlier this year after several of his reform initiatives were stalled.

Parker last week was named to the top leadership post at the city of San Diego’s Commission on Police Practices . The county law enforcement oversight board expects to hire a new executive as soon as this summer.

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