SAN DIEGO – A federal class-action lawsuit has been filed against San Diego County, the county Sheriff’s Department and other agencies following the release of a scathing report showing the area’s inmate jail deaths are among the highest in the state.
The assessment, released last week by the California State Auditor, found that the department “has failed to adequately prevent and respond to” the problem. Between 2006 and 2020, the county’s seven detention centers have tallied 185 inmate deaths, and the audit suggests legislative action may be required to “ensure that the Sheriff’s Department implements meaningful changes.”
“People are dying preventable deaths and the jail really needs to be held accountable for those,” attorney Van Swearingen said.
Swearingen is one of the attorneys along with the American Civil Liberties Union representing people incarcerated in San Diego County jails. The suit alleges county residents are “unnecessarily suffering and dying in the county’s jail facilities” due to conditions and policies that “have been allowed to persist for many years.”
“People are dying because they’re not getting their withdraw meds, because they’re not being properly observed when they’re in crisis,” Swearingen said. “People are dying of suicide because they’re not being put under adequate suicide precautions, similarly not well observed.”
Upon the release of the audit, sheriff’s officials said they welcome the recommendations in the report.
“I agree with the recommendations they’ve provided and we’re going to do what we can to make that happen,” Undersheriff Kelly Martinez said.
The sheriff’s department and the county did not return a FOX 5 reporter’s request for comment Thursday.
Swearingen said this isn’t the first time the department has been called out. In 2018, Disability Rights California released a similar report calling the San Diego County Jail a “system failing people with mental illness.”
The goal of the lawsuit, according to Swearingen, is to work with the county to make the jails a safe place for inmates, which he argues has taken far too long.
“These are problems that many communities have been complaining of and haven’t heard their voices,” he said. “What we’re very much hoping to address are the disparities in communities of color, disabled individuals and people with lesser means who are the people who get incarcerated in the jail, and get stuck in the system that doesn’t provide them with basic human rights.”