Hey! Is anyone out there? Is this thing on? Does anyone care?
Since we launched our coverage last year of the high death rate in San Diego County jails, we've won some awards, and when we bring it up in conversation, we hear some nice plaudits. Those who've followed it understand that Dave Maass and Kelly Davis are doing very important work.
But no one who can do anything about the problem—the sheriff, whose department oversees the jails, and the county Board of Supervisors—seems to give a damn. Either that or they're embarrassed and don't want to draw attention to their own culpability. They're not talking about it. As for the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), whose task it is to investigate non-natural deaths in jails, our reporting has raised questions about its ability to do its job effectively—and even its commitment to doing its job.
That's why we were gratified last week when we learned that CLERB had pointedly criticized the Sheriff's Department's negligent treatment of detainee Bernard Victorianne and its handling of his case after he died in custody in 2012. Maybe CLERB was motivated by our coverage; all that matters is that it did its job in this instance.
We detail CLERB's findings here. In a nutshell, jail staff knew that Victorianne had swallowed a baggie of meth before he was booked, but after an initial visit to the hospital and despite his obvious distress and indications of gradual overdose, they put him in solitary confinement instead of sending him to a medical-observation unit. Then they failed to follow their own policy, failing to check on Victorianne's well-being even when he was observed lying face-down and naked, and essentially left him to die from meth poisoning. What's more, CLERB reports that the inquiry into Victorianne's death was far less than thorough and that one of the deputies even lied when asked about his role.
The job of answering our questions has fallen to Sheriff's Commander John Ingrassia, who, as you'll see in our story, says that Victorianne's death has spurred some changes in policy. That's nice. But you know whom we'd really like to hear from? Sheriff Bill Gore himself. Does he think there's a problem? He should, because at least in Victorianne's case, CLERB has confirmed our earlier reporting. Gore's spokesperson, Jan Caldwell, seems to think we're overstating the scope of the problem, so we assume that's Gore's position, as well. So, he should sit down with us and hash it out.
And how about the county Board of Supervisors? They don't hire the sheriff, but they oversee his budget and are the people's representatives when it comes to all county-government functions. They also don't seem to care. They should—if not for reasons of basic human decency and morality, then because the high rate of preventable deaths in local jails is costing more and more money amid an increasing number of lawsuits. If the pressure—whether it's financial, political or regulatory in nature—continues to mount, they'll eventually start caring.
And how about the district attorney? What a silly question. Bonnie Dumanis would never willingly probe another law-enforcement agency.
Our initial investigative series reported that between 2007 and 2012, 60 detainees had died in local jails. The highest single-year total in that period was 12 in 2009. So far in 2014, 11 detainees have died. The mortality rate is high compared with both state and national figures. But it's not just the death rate that's the problem. We've found that the Sheriff's Department has failed to provide accurate information about deaths to several oversight agencies and withheld information from the families of the deceased.
The apathy surrounding this issue saddens us. We presume that people don't care what happens behind bars because, hey, these people are lowlife criminals, right? They deserve whatever happens. Well, many detainees are waiting for their day in court, not yet convicted. Most of the people who've died in custody locally were awaiting trial.
And even if they were already convicted and serving sentences, they weren't sentenced to death. The law requires jailers to protect inmates from harm and to provide medical care. The Sheriff's Department failed Bernard Victorianne—and many others, we believe—and taxpayers will pay dearly for it.
We'll continue to cover this appalling story; we hope that, one day, you'll care.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.