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O.C. grand jury says jail should check inmates’ vital signs. The sheriff disagrees

O.C. grand jury says jail should check inmates’ vital signs. The sheriff disagrees
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is seen in hs office in Santa on Feb. 19. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Grand Jury issued a report faulting the Sheriff’s Department for not checking the vital signs of every inmate admitted to its jails to reduce deaths related to hypertension, but Sheriff Don Barnes fired back, saying that’s not his job.

The report noted that not all inmates booked into O.C. jails have their vital bodily functions including blood pressure and pulse tested, which is the standard of care when a patient is seen at a doctor’s office or clinic.

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According to the report, 28 inmates died between Jan. 23, 2016, and May 2, 2018, with 15 inmates showing evidence of prior cardiovascular disease.

“The simple taking of vital signs within the first 48 hours on all the inmates being booked into the Orange County Jail could advance the diagnosis and treatment of what is acknowledged to be the leading cause of death in the United States,” the report said.

The grand jury observed that the intake center for inmates is a “high traffic area, averaging 150 inmates per day.” The inmates are “screened two at a time with no privacy,” the report says.

The Sheriff's Department and county Correctional Health Services have been discussing measures to expedite screenings, upgrade inmate privacy and improve safety for nurses while allowing better access to the inmates.

The grand jury recommended the Sheriff’s Department adopt those measures.

Inmates’ vital signs are checked if they have a history of cardiovascular disease or of being similarly monitored at the jail, according to the grand jury’s report.

Checking inmates for hypertension could end up saving money spent “to send inmates to an outside hospital for treatment while at the same time providing potential savings by reducing prospective civil litigation,” the report says.

Barnes said in a statement he disagreed with the grand jury report, noting that it “does not accurately portray the level of healthcare provided” to the county’s inmates.

He said that intake and triage procedures at the jail are not meant to diagnose illness or provide medical treatment to inmates. Instead, correctional health staff checks for issues that would restrict inmates’ ability to receive medical care at the jail if their needs are acute or exceed available services, he said.

“Inmates are not coming to jail for medical treatment,” he said. “They are coming because they broke the law. While many inmates require medical care in custody, the jail is not a medical facility. Inmates requiring moderate to severe medical care are sent to the hospital to receive advanced treatment.”

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