Following a state audit that deemed San Diego County jails unsafe, community activists and families of deceased inmates gathered outside the San Diego Sheriff’s Department on Friday to demand action.
“The state audit report on deaths in custody in San Diego County is appalling,” said Yusef Miller of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego. “We are not here to rejoice in the report. We are frustrated here that it took this report for any pull to actually happen.
On Thursday, California’s state auditor issued a scathing statement report analyzing the practices of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the 185 deaths that have occurred in its jails over the past 15 years.
The auditors determined that the county’s jails are unsafe and their operations are deficient, and recommended tighter oversight by the Sheriff’s Department and improvements to statewide correctional care standards.
“Our review identified shortcomings in how the Sheriff’s Department provides care and protects those incarcerated, which likely contributed to deaths in custody,” acting state auditor Michael Tilden wrote. “These shortcomings were related to his provision of medical and mental health care and his performance of visual checks to ensure the safety and health of those in his care.”
In particular, the audit found that the sheriff’s department “failed to consistently track” inmates who needed medical and mental health services, and concluded that the lack of attention may have contributed to their deaths.
The report noted that when deputies checked inmates, these “security checks” often amounted to inadequate stares that sometimes missed inmates in distress.
Sabrina Weddle said deputies failed to carry out regular checks on her brother, Saxon Rodriguez, who died of a fentanyl overdose in a San Diego prison. He was 22 years old.
“The detective told me that my brother was last found alive at 7 a.m. and was found [dead] at 10 years old,” Weddle said. “It’s a gap of three hours. What were they doing? Where were they?
Weddle said she blamed Sheriff Bill Gore and his team for not adequately caring for her brother and demanded changes within the department.
“These assistants are adult babysitters, and they’re not doing their job properly,” she said.
Rodriguez’s mother, Sundee Weddle, said she and her family tried to get more information about her son’s death, including CCTV, but the sheriff’s department was not transparent.
“I feel like they want to wear us down so that we shut up and go,” Weddle said. “But I’m not able to do that because Saxon meant everything to me, and I’m going to have closure.
“I will get answers and I will get justice for my son.”
Tammy Wilson, whose husband, Omar Moreno Arroya, died in a county jail, said she had similar experiences trying to access information.
Wilson said she requested video surveillance, the audio of the 911 call and the police report surrounding Arroya’s death, but her requests were denied.
“Why can’t I conclude? Why can’t I know what happened to my husband? Wilson asked. “It’s devastating. It is not fair. My life has changed forever. »
In a written response, sheriff’s department officials agreed with some of the audit’s findings, but questioned the independent reviewers’ data methodology.
They also said San Diego was not much different from other counties when it comes to people dying behind bars and noted that they were making progress toward reducing deaths in custody.
“The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has taken appropriate and reasonable steps to prevent and respond to deaths of individuals in custody,” the department’s response reads.
“The auditor’s conclusion that the deaths in custody were the result of inadequate medical care is misleading,” he adds.
In the report, auditors rebutted the response, calling some parts “dishonest.”
The auditors said legislation requiring the sheriff’s department to implement their recommendations may be the only way to fix the long-standing issues.
At Friday’s meeting, Miller and many family members called on state lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom to adhere to the audit’s recommendations and ensure those incarcerated receive adequate care and protection. .
“It’s a tough fight, no doubt,” Miller said. “We have been fighting this for decades… We want the [California Attorney General] to get involved in enforcing and lobbying for changes in legislation, and the governor to support those changes so that we can achieve culture change.
A San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found that the death rate in San Diego County jails was significantly higher than in other major counties in the state.
The series, along with a growing number of voter complaints about deaths in custody, led a group of San Diego County lawmakers to commission the state’s audit report, which looked at deaths in the local prisons between 2006 and 2020.
Rep. Dr. Akilah Weber, a La Mesa Democrat who requested the audit, indicated Thursday that she may introduce a bill requiring the sheriff’s department to enact the suggested reforms.
In a joint statement with Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, Weber called the findings “deeply troubling” and said both lawmakers are committed to accountability and ensuring the recommendations are implemented.