Civil Rights Lawyers Ask Court to Urgently Address Dangerous, Deadly Conditions in San Diego County Jails

San Diego County Jails’ Death Rate is Almost Triple the National Rate With Over 200 In-Custody Deaths Since 2006


May 2, 2022

SAN DIEGO – In an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the unconstitutional and unlawful conditions in San Diego County jails, attorneys filed motions for a preliminary injunction and class certification asking the court to require the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) to urgently address dangerous and deadly conditions in county jails.  The motions are available here.  

The motions come shortly after a scathing state audit released in February 2022. Looking at the 185 deaths that occurred in San Diego County jails from 2006-2020, the audit concluded that “the sheriff’s department has failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in custody” and warned that until “systemic deficiencies” are remedied, “the weaknesses in [SDSD’s] policies and practices will continue to jeopardize the health and lives of the individuals in its custody.”

In 2021, 18 people died while in SDSD custody and in 2022, as of this release, there have been eight deaths in county jails.

For years, oversight agencies, experts, journalists, community leaders and family members of people who died in county jails have demanded reforms. Still, the sheriff and county officials have failed to make basic changes needed to improve conditions in jails. 

“Community groups and grieving families have been demanding that the county address these problems for years,” said Van Swearingen, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “People are dying. San Diego families are suffering. These reforms can’t wait.” 

In the newly filed motions, lawyers representing several people incarcerated in county jails are asking the court to require that SDSD take immediate steps to protect people who face risk of severe harm or death.

These requests focus on:

  • Preventing drug overdoses in jails;
  • Ensuring timely and adequate safety checks for people in solitary confinement;
  • Requiring broken intercoms and video cameras be fixed to ensure that jail staff are made aware of and respond timely to emergencies;
  • Prioritizing mental health clinicians’ housing placement recommendations so that people with mental health illness(es) are placed in safe, highly-monitored cells;
  • Providing mental health care in confidential settings; and
  • Providing safe and accessible housing and programming for people with mobility disabilities, including people in wheelchairs.


“Sadly, the state audit is only the latest in a long line of reports documenting the ongoing dangers facing members of our community incarcerated in our county jail system,” said Christopher Young, a partner with the San Diego office of DLA Piper.  “This preliminary injunction is a necessary and immediate step toward the changes that must be made to reduce the unacceptable numbers of deaths in our jails, and to provide basic medical and mental health care to incarcerated people.”

The motions were filed by Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP (RBGG), DLA Piper US LLP (DLA Piper), the Law Office of Aaron J. Fischer (Aaron Fischer), and the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC). Supporting declarations from more than 20 people incarcerated in the jails and two former staff members courageously attest to the dangerous and life-threatening conditions people inside endure every day. 

“It is remarkable that mental health providers who have worked at the San Diego County Jail are now coming forward to testify, in the hope of protecting their patients. These brave and committed professionals say that the jail’s conditions are ‘barbaric,’ and they are tired of seeing their calls for improvements ignored,” said Aaron Fischer.

The federal lawsuit challenges 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. It also seeks to address over-incarceration in county jails and, in particular, the over-incarceration of people with disabilities and people of color.

“We need to hold the county and the sheriff’s department accountable for protecting the lives of people who are trusted to their care. We cannot wait for the case to go to trial before addressing these urgent safety concerns. People are facing deadly conditions right now,” said Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC. “This motion is necessary to provide urgent relief as soon as possible to prevent the death toll from continuing to mount.”

Markovitz added: “This lawsuit is just one step in a broader struggle. San Diego County needs to move past criminalization and toward investing in community-centered solutions to address deeply rooted social problems.” 

Read this press release here.

The complaint is available here.


Ed Sifuentes, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties,, (619) 300-6166

According to today’s filing:  “The crisis of people dying and suffering inside the San Diego County Jail system (‘Jail’) is urgent and undeniable. For years, the Jail’s death rate has exceeded death rates nationally and in other large California jails. Last year, 18 people died at the Jail, amounting to a death rate of 454 incarcerated people per 100,000—approximately triple the national jail rate. On February 3, 2022, the California State Auditor issued a scathing indictment of those responsible for the welfare of people confined at the Jail, concluding that ‘the Sheriff’s Department has failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in its custody.’ The State Auditor warned that until ‘systemic deficiencies’ are remedied, ‘the weaknesses in [the Sheriff’s Department’s] policies and practices will continue to jeopardize the health and lives of the individuals in its custody.’

In the three months since the State Audit Report issued, another eight people died in custody. If these trends continue, 24 people will die by year’s end, significantly more than last year. Defendants San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (‘SDSD’), County of San Diego (with SDSD, ‘County Defendants’), Correctional Healthcare Partners, Inc., and Liberty Healthcare, Inc. (collectively, ‘Defendants’) have failed to remedy dangerous and deadly conditions despite many warnings over many years by many experts and public officials. As deaths mount, families are left to grieve with no explanation from the billion dollar County entities and their private contractors who are responsible.

The extraordinarily high number of in-custody deaths and misery at the Jail will continue without this Court’s intervention. Plaintiffs respectfully ask the Court to enter a targeted preliminary injunction to ameliorate inadequate and harmful policies, procedures, practices, and training at the Jail pertaining to: (1) the prevention of drug overdose deaths; (2) adequate and timely safety checks; (3) audio intercom and video surveillance systems, and related staff responses to emergencies; (4) the consideration of mental health staff’s clinically-based recommendations for people with mental health needs; (5) the provision of mental health care in confidential settings; and (6) the provision of safe and accessible housing and programming to people with mobility disabilities.”