Department of Justice investigating SLO County jail following wrongful death lawsuit

Nov 7, 2018

San Luis Obispo County’s legal counsel announced this week the U.S. Department of Justice will conduct an independent investigation into the medical and mental health care of inmates at the county jail. The county says the investigation isn’t focused on a single event, but the news comes less than two days after the wife of a former inmate in the jail filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county.

Margo Benson-Hammer claims her husband, Russell Hammer, did not receive mental health treatment while he was in custody in November of 2017. The lawsuit alleges that at the time, Hammer was suffering from medical and mental health issues. Hammer’s attorney is Paula Canny.

“I filed the lawsuit because the entire time he was in jail, he was neglected,” Canny said. “His medical needs weren’t met, his psychological needs weren’t met, he was mistreated, he languished and was allowed to die.”

According to the coroner’s report, 21 days after his arrest, Hammer died from a massive pulmonary embolism from a blood clot that started in his leg. It’s a similar death suffered by Andrew Holland, the 36-year-old inmate who died in January 2017, after being tied to a restraint chair at the jail for two days. Canny says while Hammer was not tied up, he was not allowed to move around much.

“What I know, from having reviewed all of the records regarding Russell Hammer’s treatment, is that for all the county said they were going to changed after Andrew Holland’s death, nothing has changed," Canny said.

San Luis Obispo County’s lead attorney, Rita Neal, said the county rejected the claims earlier this year, and that her office and is prepared to defend the county, its employees and officials.

The San Luis Obispo County Jail had the sixth-highest inmate death rate of all California counties over the last five years. 12 inmates died between 2012 and 2017.