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San Diego Central Jail inmate found dead on eve of Thanksgiving is 16th death this year

San Diego Central Jail
At the San Diego Central Jail, Sheriff’s deputies have a direct line of sight to inmates who are housed in the Psychiatric Inpatient Unit.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sheriff’s Department provides few details, but sources say it was a suicide

A San Diego Central Jail inmate was found dead the day before Thanksgiving, marking the 16th death in San Diego County jails this year.

That makes 2019 the deadliest year since 2014, when 17 inmates died in jail custody.

The Sheriff’s Department confirmed the death, but provided few details, after The San Diego Union-Tribune asked about the case.

The sheriff’s homicide unit is investigating the death, which was reported on Nov. 27 at 12:15 p.m., Lt. Michael Blevins said in a statement. The inmate’s name was being withheld until the coroner could notify next of kin.

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“The cause and manner of death is pending until the Medical Examiner’s Office completes their autopsy report,” the statement concluded.

Sources told the Union-Tribune that the unidentified man took his own life. He had been housed on the sixth floor of the Central Jail, where mentally ill inmates are supposed to receive treatment and special observation.

The death was at least the fourth suicide this year in the jails.

The deaths add pressure on Sheriff Bill Gore to respond to what is — and has been for years — the highest jail-mortality rate among California’s largest counties.

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The most recent inmate death came after the Monday deadline for the County Board of Supervisors to receive bids for an independent review of jail practices.

Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Nathan Fletcher requested the study in September after the publication of “Dying Behind Bars,” a six-month Union-Tribune investigation that exposed deadly lapses in medical and mental health treatment inside San Diego jails — and the millions of dollars those deaths cost in lawsuits.

The multiday series disclosed that at least 140 inmates have died in custody since 2009, the year Gore was appointed sheriff.

Jacob and Fletcher declined to comment on why they think jail deaths continue to occur or whether Gore is doing enough to protect people in his custody.

They issued a joint statement saying it was premature to compare the latest death with previous ones.

“We’re still awaiting all the details on this tragic incident and it’s too soon to say how it relates to other jail deaths,” the statement said. “Clearly we need to take a hard look at addressing the safety of inmates in sheriff facilities, and we look forward to the outcome of the independent review we’ve launched.”

The pending “best practices” review will be the third independent report on the jail system in as many years.

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One of those reviews, by the Sacramento advocacy group Disability Rights California, found that San Diego jails had the highest suicide rate among similar-sized California jail systems.

The Sheriff’s Department hired a statistician to rebut that finding. Gore also used that report to challenge “Dying Behind Bars.”

“All this talk about statistics sends a really terrible message that this isn’t a problem that requires attention and significant action,” said Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel with the Disability Rights California. “They’re sending the wrong message to the people working inside the jail.”

Fischer noted that at least three suicides in recent years happened in parts of the jail where inmates are supposed to be closely monitored. In March, 26-year-old Ivan Ortiz suffocated himself in the Central Jail’s psychiatric security unit. In July 2018, Manuel Gomez, 36, choked himself to death in the jail’s enhanced observation housing unit, which was created in 2015 to protect suicidal inmates.

“This is another example of a person identified as having a serious mental health need being placed in a unit where there are clearly ineffective treatment and safety practices,” Fischer said.

The Sheriff’s Department has said that it made improvements, such as expanding mental health clinicians’ hours, hiring more staff and bringing in a new mental health provider.

Critics told the Union-Tribune in October that the upcoming jail best-practices review has a limited scope and is unlikely to produce a more thorough evaluation than prior studies of the jails, in part because the earlier studies took more time and included interviews with jail staff and inmates.

County officials would not say how many consultants submitted bids to produce the report, which officials estimated would cost up to $150,000.

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“In order to ensure that the county is in the best position to negotiate a fair contract for the public, information including names and the number of proposals received is not released until after the contract has been awarded,” county spokesman Michael Workman said by email.

Once a contract is awarded, county officials expect the best-practices review to be completed around the middle of March.

McDonald and Davis write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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