SAN DIEGO – During a federal court hearing held today in San Diego, civil rights lawyers asked U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Battaglia to grant their motion for a preliminary injunction that would require the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (“SDSD”) to urgently remedy dangerous and deadly conditions in county jails.

Before today’s hearing, the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego (RJCSD), North County Equity & Justice Coalition (NCEJC), Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP (“RBGG”), DLA Piper LLP (US) (“DLA Piper”), the Law Office of Aaron J. Fischer (“Aaron Fischer”), the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) and family members of incarcerated people held a joint press conference to discuss the deadly consequences of conditions in county jails.

RJCSD and NCEJC have been running the Saving Lives in Custody (SLIC) campaign working with impacted families to call attention to conditions in jails and demanding reforms to prevent any more deaths. 

The motion, which seeks a preliminary injunction and provisional certification of a class of incarcerated people, was filed by RBGG, DLA Piper, Aaron Fischer and the ACLUF-SDIC. It is part of an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the unconstitutional and unlawful conditions in county jails that have led to a shocking number of preventable deaths.

A scathing state audit released in February referred to the 185 deaths in San Diego County jails from 2006-2020 as “one of the highest totals among counties in the state,” noting that the high death rate “raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the SDSD’s policies and practices.”

Since the release of the audit, the crisis in the county jails has only worsened. Fifteen people have died in custody this year, five of whom died in July alone. 

New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail – which has received widespread national media attention and has a much larger population than San Diego County jails – had fewer deaths (16) than San Diego County jails did (18) last year.

“Our county’s jail system has deteriorated and is now completely out of control. Rikers Island in New York has been historically considered the prison system with some of the most horrific and dangerous conditions in the United States,” said Darwin Fishman, with the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and North County Equity & Justice Coalition. “Are our jails operated in a way that now produces more fatalities than some of the most horrific and deadly jail systems in the United States? This lawsuit provides us with a way to finally dig us out of this rut and bring desperately need changes to our jail system.”

In April, lawyers representing eight individuals who are or have been incarcerated in county jails, along with a putative class of thousands of incarcerated people, asked the court to require SDSD to take immediate steps to protect and save the lives of those facing high risks of severe harm and death in custody.  That request was the subject of today’s court hearing, at which the court was requested to order SDSD to take the following steps:

  • Developing plans to prevent drug overdoses in jails, including through expanding access to naloxone and medication-assisted treatment;
  • Ensuring that mental health staff, and not custody staff, determine appropriate care for people with mental health needs, and preventing the dangerous placement of people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement;
  • Providing mental health care in confidential settings;
  • Ensuring timely and adequate safety checks for people in solitary confinement;
  • Requiring that chronically broken intercoms and video cameras be fixed to ensure that jail staff are made aware of and respond timely to emergencies; and
  • Providing safe and accessible housing and programming for people with mobility disabilities, including people in wheelchairs.

“For far too long, members of the San Diego community incarcerated in the county jails have been forced to endure needless death and suffering due to failures by the county and the sheriff’s department,” said Van Swearingen, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Our clients’ lives are in danger, and reform cannot wait. A preliminary injunction is necessary to save lives, end disability discrimination and address some of the most egregious conditions in the county jails.”

The federal lawsuit was filed against the County of San Diego, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, San Diego County Probation Department, and medical and mental health contractors for their collective failure to provide adequate living conditions and medical and mental health care for people incarcerated in county jails. Among other issues, the suit also seeks to address misclassification of incarcerated people, including transgender people and over-incarceration in county jails, specifically the over incarceration of people with disabilities and people of color.

 

Chris Young, a partner with DLA Piper in San Diego, said: “The county and the sheriff’s department have failed to implement even the most basic reforms to improve conditions at the San Diego County jails, and as a result, the lives and well-being of all incarcerated people are at risk. The situation is becoming increasingly dire. Given that Defendants are unwilling to take action, immediate court intervention is absolutely necessary.”

Aaron Fischer said: “If you are a person incarcerated at the San Diego County Jail and have serious mental health needs, you are at extreme risk of harm every day, and things seem to be getting worse, not better. It’s a system where getting necessary care is impossible. And our clients in custody, jail staff and leadership, and the community all know it.”

Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC, said: “San Diego County jails are a system in crisis that systematically degrades and dehumanizes people who are incarcerated, imposing routine forms of suffering and violence. This case makes it clear that change is necessary, and that mass incarceration is not the way to deal with our most pressing social issues. We should not criminalize homelessness and poverty, and the jails should not be our largest mental health provider. As a community, we must commit to create far-reaching changes to ensure the county will no longer rely on incarceration as a default to address larger perceived social problems and inequities.” 

# # #

MEDIA CONTACT:

Darwin Fishman, Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and North County Equity & Justice Coalition, 202-577-4025

Priyah Kaul, Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, 415-433-6830

Edward Sifuentes, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, 619-300-6166

 

Selected Media Coverage

‘We’re begging for help’: Jailed people and their families ask court to force immediate change, San Diego Union Tribune, August 11, 2022

Jail reform advocates call on San Diego County to overhaul inmate care policy, NBC San Diego News, August 11, 2022

Jail reform advocates call on San Diego County to address in-custody deaths, CBS8 News, August 11, 2022

Families and activists sue over jail deaths, ABC10 News, August 11, 2022

Jail Reform Advocates Call on San Diego County to Address in-Custody Deaths, Times of San Diego, August 11, 2022