SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The family of a man who hung himself while in custody at the Vista Detention Facility last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against San Diego County and the jail’s psychiatric staff for not doing more to prevent his suicide.
The family of Joseph “Joey” Morton, 33, alleges the jail’s staff was well aware of Morton’s suicide attempt days before he was booked into jail and numerous suicidal statements he made while in custody, yet ignored the clear signs of his intent to harm himself, according to the complaint filed Monday in San Diego federal court.
Morton’s family alleges that after losing his job at a car dealership, he “struggled to live” and attempted to kill himself on May 8, 2020. He was hospitalized and placed on a 5150 hold, an involuntary detention period for people suffering from a mental health crisis.
After he was released from the hospital and “having no means to survive,” Morton tried to rob someone with a fake gun on May 11, the complaint alleges.
He was arrested and his family claims he made suicidal statements to arresting sheriff’s deputies, and further explained his recent suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt to the jail’s psychiatric staff.
Despite his disclosures, Morton’s family says jail staff did not flag him as a suicide risk. One psychologist allegedly assessed him as having a low risk of suicide “because he asked for food and inquired about bail.” Another psychologist believed Morton was faking his suicidal ideations in an attempt to get staff to let him use a phone, according to the complaint.
The family alleges he was left in an isolated cell for the next five days after those assessments and was not evaluated again by medical staff or given any medication for depression or addiction withdrawal symptoms.
On May 17, he was found in his cell hanging from a bedsheet.
The complaint alleges Morton was left “in an isolated cell, without medication, and with the means and opportunity to kill himself.”
Named in the suit as defendants are San Diego County, Liberty Healthcare — the contracted psychiatric provider for the county’s jails –, and the psychiatric staff members who allegedly assessed Morton.
The lawsuit is one of several filed by family members of inmates who have died while in custody at San Diego County jails.
A San Diego Union-Tribune investigation into the county jail system found it had the highest mortality rate among large county jail systems in the state.
County officials and Liberty Healthcare did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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