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Advocates urge jail reforms, citing neglect and abuse for mentally ill inmates

Relatives of those who have died in custody or have loved ones grappling with mental health issues behind bars, gathered outside the central courthouse in downtown San Diego on Friday.

They were voicing their concerns over the inadequate mental health care and growing number of in-custody deaths in San Diego County jails, saying that behind bars, people with mental health conditions often face neglect, abuse, or even death. They came together to share their experiences, hoping to raise awareness of the issue.

David Settles’ brother, Mathew Settles, was schizoaffective. He died in custody at the George Bailey Detention Facility in August 2022.

“He was delusional. He was off his treatment. He needed the help to get stabilized,” Settles said. “My mom and I and his family, we feared that would be a death sentence for him and it absolutely was. The jails are not at all, you know, able to handle mentally ill.”

A survey found that 40% of San Diego County arrestees reported being diagnosed with a mental or psychiatric disorder. And about 25% use psychiatric medication.

Cheryl Canson stood holding a poster board decorated with pictures of her two sons who are imprisoned.

“Overdoses continue to happen. My son got a heroin addiction inside prison. He didn’t have it before he went in,” Canson said. “So how are these drugs accessible to them?”

Advocates stood alongside families, pushing for jail system reforms. They suggest tighter policies could reduce jail deaths caused by drug overdoses, lack of medical care, and suicides.

Advocates said that detention officers with minimal training are responsible for the health and safety of detainees, and that can have fatal consequences. They propose more private intake procedures, increasing inmate monitoring and screening jail staff for drugs. However, current San Diego County Sheriff Kelly Martinez and former sheriff Bill Gore have consistently declined requests to subject deputies to drug scans.

Martinez has a $500 million plan to upgrade jails and decrease deaths in custody. But San Diego still maintains one of the highest rates of inmate deaths in the state; 185 lost their lives from 2006 to 2020, according to a state audit. An additional 36 people have died since its release in 2022.

North County Equity and Justice Coalition’s Yusef Miller says the sheriff’s department should have stronger oversight and higher standards for correctional care.

“We cannot arrest our way out of mental health crisis. We cannot punish our way out of mental health crisis,” he said. “We need change in San Diego County jails. We have been the highest in-custody death rates for a very long time running and it is a shameful record that we still currently hold.”

Gina Burns is a mother facing the daunting reality of having two incarcerated sons with severe mental illness. On Friday, she and the other families sent a collective message to the sheriff and county officials.

“To Kelly Martinez, I’m holding you accountable for all these deaths and all this trauma that’s been faced on these people with severe mental illness, including my sons,” Burns said. “Accountability means change and change needs to happen.”

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