SAN DIEGO – Yesterday, attorneys representing people incarcerated in San Diego County jails filed an amended complaint in a lawsuit against the County of San Diego, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, San Diego County Probation Department, and medical and mental health contractors for the San Diego County jails. The complaint challenges the defendants’ collective failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care and living conditions for people incarcerated in county jails, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the disproportionate overincarceration of people with disabilities and people of color.
The lawsuit demands that the county implement measures to improve safety and protect the rights of people incarcerated in county jails. These measures include ensuring adequate physical, mental, and dental health care; accommodating incarcerated people with disabilities; and providing more meaningful alternatives to incarceration.
The amended complaint was filed by Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP (RBGG), DLA Piper US LLP (DLA Piper), the Law Office of Aaron J. Fischer (Aaron Fischer), and the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC).
“Every day, the thousands of people held at San Diego County jails face intolerable risks to their lives and health due to the extraordinarily dangerous conditions and practices that have been allowed to persist for many years,” said Van Swearingen, a partner at RBGG. “This lawsuit seeks to make the jails a safer place, especially for people with disabilities, and to address the cycle of mass incarceration that fails to make the community safer and disproportionately harms communities of color.”
From 2006 through 2020, county jails have averaged more than one death per month, for a total of at least 185 in-custody deaths, according to the California State Auditor. While the county’s death rate in the jails has exceeded national and California rates for years, it reached chilling heights in 2021 with 18 deaths, almost triple the national rate. New York City’s Rikers Island – which has received widespread national media attention for the high number of deaths and has a much larger population than San Diego County jails – had fewer deaths (16) than San Diego County jails did (18) last year.
“Conditions in the San Diego jails are unacceptable,” said Christopher Young, a partner with DLA Piper in San Diego. “Immediate intervention through the complaint filed today is necessary. We need to do everything we can to fix the jail system in our community, and to ensure that persons who are incarcerated are provided with adequate health care and housed safely, securely and humanely.”
Last year, county jail deaths were largely attributable to suicide, overdoses, homicide and medical neglect – deaths that are often preventable with adequate policies, practices, training and supervision in place. Here are just a few examples of the deaths that occurred in San Diego County jails:
- Lester Marroquin drowned himself shortly after deputies ordered his transfer from a high-observation safety cell to a less frequently observed segregation cell. This transfer was made even though jail staff knew he had a history of suicide attempts by water intoxication when left alone.
- Omar Moreno Arroyo choked to death on his facemask because jail staff and contractors failed to adequately monitor him while he was experiencing a mental health crisis and under the influence of methamphetamine.
- Rafael Hernandez hanged himself in a mental health unit while awaiting trial for almost a year.
- Jerry Aleman, Saxon Rodriguez, Ronaldino Estrada and Jonathan Whitlock died by overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is widely available inside county jails.
- Ivan Ortiz committed suicide with a plastic bag erroneously provided to him. He was left unmonitored despite having tried to hang himself earlier in the day and telling jail staff that he was hearing voices telling him to kill himself.
“The county and sheriff’s department have the duty and the moral obligation to ensure the safety of people who are trusted to their care, but they have a long and troubling history of shirking this duty,” said Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC. “It is long past time to re-think and reduce incarceration in San Diego County.”
Calls for change in the jail system have gone ignored by the sheriff for years. In 2018, Disability Rights California released a report highlighting the factors that contribute to the high suicide rate in San Diego County jails. These factors include over-incarceration of people with mental health needs, failure to provide adequate mental health treatment, overuse of solitary confinement, and lack of meaningful, independent jail oversight.
“There has been report after report finding the same failures and dangerous conditions in San Diego jails,” said Aaron Fischer, an author of the 2018 Disability Rights California report and co-counsel in the case. “It’s been a system resistant to necessary change. It’s a system that directly harms our clients in detention, a system that even staff members recognize as dangerous and inhumane.”