State oversight board says safeguards in place to protect inmates, but they are not being followed

An independent agency that sets standards for the operation of California county jails and juvenile detention centers weighed in on a recent state audit of San Diego County jails on Thursday.

Members of the Board of State and Community Corrections listened to a brief presentation from the audit, released in February, which found that San Diego prisons have the highest death rate among major California counties.

The audit recommended that the council implement new regulations, including requiring mental health assessments conducted during the booking process to be carried out by mental health professionals and clarifying rules governing security checks detainees.

“The issues we identified with Sheriff’s Department policies are in part the result of statewide correctional standards that are not robust enough,” the audit said.

Katie Howard, the council’s executive director, described the subject of the audit – deaths in county jails – as “a very, very serious and difficult issue”, but pushed back against the claim that the council’s bylaws were fault.

Howard said the board had agreed mental health screenings in prisons were ‘vitally important’ but questioned whether it was possible, especially for smaller prison systems, to have a professional mental health available 24 hours a day.

“There needs to be a framework that has reasonable requirements that counties can actually meet,” she said.

As for security checks, she said the guidelines in place were sufficient. These guidelines state that checks should be carried out “at least hourly” and include “direct visual observation of all inmates”.

The question, Howard said, is whether jailers are following the guidelines. The San Diego Prisons Audit described “several instances in which staff spent no more than a second peeking into individuals’ cells, sometimes without stopping, as they roamed the accommodation module”.

Inadequate security checks could prevent MPs from noticing someone in medical distress before it is too late.

“These kinds of things are concerning, there’s no doubt about that,” Howard said. “The shortcoming seems to be in the operation of the facilities.”

She noted that the audit cited Riverside County’s security check procedures as a model — supervisors are required to regularly review videos of security checks to ensure deputies are performing them correctly — and that the Perhaps the board could add language to its standards to require similar oversight.

Andrew Mills, board member and police chief for the city of Palm Springs, said the audit should have taken a more critical look at the systems that have caused so many people with mental illness to found in jail.

“I feel like we’re jumping on solutions without analyzing the problem,” Mills said. “What we did was try to incarcerate our way out of the mental health crisis.

“There’s not much to do on admission,” he added. “The experience of many police and sheriffs is that we will (arrest) the same people over and over again and it’s very frustrating because there’s no solution.”

In March, several state legislators introduced the “Saving Lives in Custody Act” which, if enacted, will require the corrections board to add a licensed health care provider and a licensed mental health care provider as as board members and to develop new standards related to the care of inmates with mental health issues, “including requirements for training of correctional staff, requirements for mental health screening and requirements for Security Checks for At-Risk Inmates” effective July 1, 2023.

During a brief public comment period, Malcolm Morgan of local advocacy organization Pillars of the Community said mental health care in San Diego County jails needs an overhaul. He urged the council to quickly adopt new policies.

“I’ve been in San Diego County jails as an inmate and seen the way people with mental illness are treated,” he said. “We can’t wait while people sit in there and break down and deteriorate mentally.”

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