At the end of a week during which two more San Diego County inmates died behind bars, a delegation of state lawmakers introduced a bill Friday they said would help protect people in local jails.
The Saving Lives in Custody bill comes six weeks after the California state auditor issued a scathing report detailing 185 deaths inside San Diego County jails between 2006 and 2020, representing the highest mortality rate among the state’s largest counties.
State legislators said the bill, if passed, would tighten Sheriff’s Department practices, especially when it comes to evaluating inmates’ mental health.
“We wish this was something that we didn’t have to legislate,” said Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, the La Mesa Democrat who introduced the legislation. Accompanying her were Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego).
“Going to jail should not be a death sentence, and unfortunately, for too many, it has been,” Weber said.
Last year, 18 men and women died in the San Diego sheriff’s custody, pushing the total number of deaths since 2006 past 200. Five more people have died this year.
On Wednesday, William Schuck of Orange County died after he was arrested last week on suspicion of driving under the influence and other charges, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Another man in San Diego Central Jail was found unresponsive in his cell late Thursday, the department said. Lonnie Rupard, who was 46, was transported to a nearby hospital and died early Friday.
Department spokeswoman Lt. Amber Baggs said officials are reviewing the proposed legislation and already have taken several steps to improve conditions and practices inside county jails.
The department has improved safety checks, adopted drug-treatment programs, sped up the review process for critical incidents and equipped guards with body-worn cameras to increase accountability, she said.
“Acting Sheriff [Kelly] Martinez is committed to implementing change in our jails,” Baggs said. “She is intent on providing the safest environment for everyone in our custody and for our staff.”
The state audit was approved last spring, after local activists pressed San Diego County lawmakers to do something to reduce the number of deaths in local jails.
The seven-month analysis, which examined in-custody deaths over 15 years, said conditions inside San Diego County jails were so unsafe that state lawmakers needed to intervene to force the Sheriff’s Department to do better.
Longtime Sheriff Bill Gore, who announced he would resign in mid-term earlier this year, agreed with some findings but disputed others. He also questioned the audit’s methodology, just as he has with other outside investigators.
Gore’s last day was Feb. 3, the same day state auditors publicly released their findings.
Martinez, an undersheriff, has been serving as acting sheriff. The county Board of Supervisors next week is scheduled to select an interim sheriff from three finalists who are not running for the open seat on the June ballot.
The state audit said sheriff’s officials failed to provide appropriate inmate care and often did not conduct safety checks to make sure they were safe.
“Our review identified deficiencies with how the Sheriff’s Department provides care for and protects incarcerated individuals, which likely contributed to in-custody deaths,” wrote Michael Tilden, the acting state auditor.
The state findings mirrored what several outside experts have reported in recent years.
They also matched the findings of a six-month investigation published by the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2019.
The deaths have not only caused anguish for the families of those who died, but also cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal settlements and awards.
Earlier this week, for example, the county was hit with an $85-million federal jury verdict in favor of the family of a man who died after being restrained by deputies in 2015.
The Saving Lives in Custody bill was written to address what lawmakers said were systemic deficiencies in local jails, by raising the standard of care for prisoners.
It would direct the Board of State and Community Corrections, which oversees jails, to develop new standards and to make policy reforms, including increasing requirements for continued education for correctional staff, according to lawmakers.
The bill would also require jails to conduct mental health screenings when arrestees are booked into custody and would impose new requirements for safety checks of at-risk inmates.
It would also add two licensed health professionals as members of the Board of State and Community Corrections.
AC Mills, whose son, Kevin Mills, was found dead in his San Diego County jail cell in 2020, said sheriff’s employees knew about his son’s mental illness and other medical issues but did little to get him the help he needed.
He said the bill comes too late to save his son, but he hopes it will help others survive their time in jail.
“I can’t do nothing for him, but the future persons who are unfortunately jailed and come downtown to this jail here run by the Sheriff’s Department, there’s a good chance that they will make it out,” Mills said.
Officials from the labor union that represents jail healthcare workers also attended the bill’s introduction.
David Lagstein of the Service Employees International Union said the bill was important to union members, who need to be supported to do their jobs effectively.
“They want to keep the people in their care safe,” he said. “This is legislation as part of a number of reforms that are needed in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.”
The legislation, introduced as Assembly Bill 2343, was co-authored, in addition to Atkins and Ward, by San Diego-area Sen. Ben Hueso and Assemblymembers Brian Maienschein and Tasha Boerner Horvath.
It has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Public Safety for further review.