Suicides and attempts at self-harm in the San Diego County jail system remain an unsolved problem. And, despite reforms in sentencing, the cost of incarceration in California continues to grow.
Two studies released this week point to local and statewide issues concerning incarceration. I’ll start with the local one, especially since it is relevant to the June 5th elections.
Disability Rights California, which has federal authority to investigate conditions in adult and juvenile detention facilities throughout the state, has issued a detailed report on suicides in San Diego County’s Jail System. Reforms instituted by Sheriff Bill Gore, who has oversight of County facilities are too little and too late.
The report on San Diego County jails reenforces media accounts from recent years showing the local inmate suicide rate has been many times higher than the rate in similarly sized county jails in California, the State prison system, and jails nationally.
While there has been a recent lull in deaths by suicide, the incidence of attempts and self-harm remains high, with an average of two per week. In other words, while the Sheriff’s Department may be getting better at intervening once an attempt is made, the underlying causes have not been addressed.
How bad was it?
This bad, from the Union-Tribune coverage of conditions leading up to the report:
In one case the group reviewed, surveillance video showed an inmate standing naked on a desk in his cell for 14 minutes “praying and preparing to jump” before diving headfirst onto the floor, where he lay for four minutes before staff checked on him.
The man had been housed in the new enhanced observation unit where inmates are supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes.
In another case, after finding an inmate hanging in his cell, deputies waited seven minutes to summon help, “and then prevented nursing staff from evaluating the inmate’s condition,” the report says.
And in another case, surveillance video showed 11 deputies waiting several minutes before initiating lifesaving measures.
Included in the report are some of the 22 cases not investigated by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board because of an assertion that too much time had elapsed.
Four findings incorporated in the report underscore what is already known, thanks in large part to investigative reporting by Kelly Davis and Dave Maass, along with a 2017 Grand Jury report.
The needs of an extremely high number of inmates with serious mental health problems are not well served by the County’s mental health system, both inside and outside jails, according to the group. There is a “dangerous, costly, and counter-productive over-incarceration of people with mental health-related disabilities,” resulting from a historical failure to provide sufficient community-based mental health services.
The investigators found a basis for optimism in the recently developed Mental Health Services Act Plan and related initiatives – including increased community based-services and diversion/reentry efforts.
Two experts in suicide prevention and mental health treatment in detention facilities identified 24 key deficiencies in the County’s systems and 46 recommendations for further action. “While we are convinced that the Sheriff’s Department has begun to take the issue of suicide prevention seriously, there remain many aspects of the system’s treatment of people at risk of suicide that require urgent action.”
They pointed to a connection between suicides and the use of solitary confinement cells, noting that inmates with mental health needs run a grave risk of psychological and other harms due to current failures to provide adequate mental health treatment.
Based on the presumption that existing oversight systems have failed, they urged the County to create an independent entity staffed by professionals to monitor jail conditions, suicide prevention programs, and mental health treatments. Models of such oversight systems in other large California jurisdictions like Los Angeles County we suggested as a path toward resolving the historical inadequacies in local jails.
To nobody’s surprise, the Sheriff’s Department responded with a statement questioning the statistical model (the same method used by federal authorities) and taking issue with some recommendations
A rotting fish stinks from the head, folks. And the head of the San Diego County Sheriff Department is Bill Gore, who is running for re-election in June.
Voters have a choice between the guy whose jail department required women prisoners to be shackled while giving birth, or Dave Myers, an experienced member of the department who is committed to progressive reforms.
A California Budget and Policy Center report reveals that, despite declines in the state’s inmate population, spending on incarceration continues to grow at rates faster than inflation. Gov. Jerry Brown is asking for $12.1 billion in 2018-19 (the fiscal year that begins this coming July 1).
That’s $2 billion higher than the 2012-13 level, after adjusting for inflation, despite a 20% reduction in inmate population. And it does not include state funding for counties to carry out correctional responsibilities assumed as part of the state-to-county “realignment” enacted in 2011.
In fact, the only part of spending not increasing are funds used for contract facilities, i.e., the cost of warehousing prisoners in other states’ facilities.
Groups like District Attorney associations are currently lobbying to ‘reform’ voter-enacted changes to the criminal justice system that will keep the prison population from declining further. They’d like you to believe dangerous criminals are lurking around each and every corner, and the best way to prevent this is to lock ‘em up.
The California Budget and Policy Center outlook in their report assumes what people want is to further diminish the role of jails and prisons, not increase them. And they say more work remains to be done:
Significantly reducing corrections spending will require California to go beyond recent reforms. This should include simplifying the state’s complex Penal Code with an eye toward shortening prison sentences. Such reforms would further reduce incarceration, allowing the state to close costly prisons. This, in turn, would free up substantial revenues that could be reallocated to a range of services and supports that can promote rehabilitation, reduce poverty, and strengthen families and communities.
Finally, here’s a video reminder of the key role District Attorneys play in our communities. Many of the changes needing to be made start in this office.
San Diego’s appointed incumbent District Attorney is Summer Stephan, who is facing her first election since being handed the position by her former boss, Bonnie Dumanis. Voters have a choice this June, and the progressive alternative is Geneviève Jones-Wright.
Get Out the Vote is a Political Action Committee already working to educate voters about progressive candidates as part of the Vote for Justice Campaign. They’re looking for volunteers to help with phone banking.
The ACLU’s Smart Justice DA Campaign is part of nationwide effort to bring common sense reforms to our criminal justice system. They are looking for volunteers to help with phone banking and canvassing voters.
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to “The Starting Line” and get an email every time a new article in this series is posted!
I read the Daily Fishwrap(s) so you don’t have to… Catch “the Starting Line” Monday thru Friday right here at San Diego Free Press (dot) org. Send your hate mail and ideas to DougPorter@SanDiegoFreePress.Org Check us out on Facebook and Twitter.