Study: Jail Deaths in California on Rise

Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Audrey Sawyer

LOS ANGELES, CA – Despite fewer individuals being arrested, the number of people dying in jail keeps increasing across California.

While an article from LAist notes that about five years ago California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged the state would take more action to prevent deaths across jail systems, every year after Newsom’s promise has seen more people die in California jails. Record highs are seen for Tulare, San Diego, Kern, Riverside, and San Bernardino County jails, the article notes.

In 2020, Newsom promised he would work through to bring a state board where measures could keep inmates safer, saying in the article, “I have got a board that’s responsibility is oversight. I want to see them step things up.”

The article from LAist states Newsom and the Board of State and Community Corrections were unable to slow the deaths, explaining a 2021 State Auditor’s Report had criticized the board for “failing to enforce its own rules and standards on mental health checks and in-cell wellness checks of inmates.”

According to a previous CalMatters investigation, three-quarters of individuals kept in county jails had not been convicted or sentenced and many waited for their trial for more than three years.

In 2022, the article reports California had the smallest share of deaths as a result of natural causes in the past four decades, but has seen a surge of drug overdoses.

Nearly every individual who had died in custody was awaiting trial, not convicted of anything.

The article asserts some of the changes made by Newsom include offering an additional $3.1 million every year to the oversight board, appointing a formerly incarcerated individual to the board, and signing a bill that would add both a licensed healthcare provider and a licensed mental or behavioral healthcare provider to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

Policy changed for inspections—now with 31 unannounced inspections last year. A July law will add a staff position meant to review in-custody deaths, which will be appointed by Governor Newsom and confirmed by the Senate.

However, many critics argue Gov. Newsom had not made enough progress, as stated in the article. The LAist said CalMatters had sent various questions to Newsom about the deaths in jail, effectiveness of the state board, and his pledge from 2021 promising to strengthen oversight in jail. Newsom’s office did not respond.

California State Sheriff’s Association President Mike Boudreaux, also Tulare Sheriff, says he already answers to a state oversight board, the state Justice Department, federal courts, state courts, media, and county grand juries.

Boudreaux said, “When we see people criticize jails, they criticize sheriff’s offices. The reality of it is that they have never been inside a jail. They have never sat in meetings that we sit in to not only make sure that we are doing things right, that we are doing things for the safety and security of the inmates.”

The 13-member Board of State and Community Corrections was created in 2011 as an oversight board for prisons and jails, and members consist of mainly individuals noted as law enforcement or associated with probation experience.

The purpose of the board according to the LAist was to lend independent expertise to jails and prisons and to act as a “data and information clearinghouse,” giving $400 million each year to jails, prisons, tribes, and community organizations. Standards are also set for correctional facilities. However, the board lacked authority to make it mandatory for all California sheriff’s report data (which would include in-custody deaths).

Adam A. Lwin, Board of State and Community Corrections representative claimed, “Until the passage of the new law adding a detention monitor, the BSCC did not have specific responsibilities regarding deaths in custody, beyond inspecting the local agency’s policy and procedures related to reporting on any death and custody.”

Regarding in-custody deaths, the LAist points out some patterns including how natural causes of death have always been the largest share of jail deaths, followed by suicide as the second largest share, noting the third largest cause of deaths in custody is accidental, which would include fentanyl overdoses. Other reasons can be failures in healthcare or psychiatric evaluations, and, less commonly, violence either by guards or among other inmates.

Shannon Dicus, San Bernardino County Sheriff and a member of the BSCC, described the rise of deaths as partially “part of a trend unfolding outside of jails, such as an overstretched mental health system and widespread opiate usage.”

Continuing, Dicus explained some inmates will have already consumed opiates in a way where expensive scanners cannot detect them, explaining, “Jails also find letters sent to inmates dipped in fentanyl or methamphetamine.”

However, the LAist points out there are incidents where drugs are being smuggled by staff from the outside. One example used in the article discussed when outside visitors were not allowed due to the pandemic, deputies in Riverside and Fresno counties were charged with drug smuggling.

Another side effect of the pandemic, as pointed out by the article, is notably harming jail’s ability to provide inmates with quality healthcare.

After jails had reopened to their regular capacity, Corene Kendrick (Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project) emphasized the increase in inmates had brought stress to workers, noting, “A lot of jails have said that they are having problems with correctional and healthcare staff who quit during the pandemic.”

The LAist suggests scanning jail workers for drugs, providing more supply of opioid-blocking nasal spray, ensuring inmates go through intake in a more private area, checking inmates more frequently, and instituting local oversight boards.

The article noted how Riverside inmate Richard Matus had documented feeling ill and receiving no medical help while in jail, days before he died of a fentanyl overdose. His mother had told CalMatters that Matus was never sent to the hospital, despite showing higher blood pressure and cholesterol than normal.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Office had responded to their filed lawsuit denying liability, claiming that his death was his own doing.

The ACLU sent a letter in September 2021 demanding the state investigate deaths in Riverside County, to no response. Matus, along with 19 others, died in custody in 2022. Only after another letter was sent by the ACLU again asking for an inquiry was the request met.

Concerns over whether or not the board is effectively able to regulate jails continue to be emphasized.

Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco District Attorney, told CalMatters, “It is not set up with the kind of enforcement power, or teeth, to meaningfully hold accountable agencies that are failing to comply with standards.”

Dicus, operating the seventh largest jail system in the U.S., believes the oversight board is “working as intended” which is assessing policies and procedures it oversees while making sure facilities are up to par.

According to Dicus, the issues are beyond jails for in-custody deaths, pointing out, “This is a 24/7 environment when people are in crisis. The cops are there 24/7, but we need other service responders to be able to have the same response.”

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for