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KCBX Two-Way: Inmate death rate at the SLO County jail

Greta Mart/KCBX

The San Luis Obispo County jail has been under scrutiny for several years over inmate deaths inside the facility. The issue came to a head in 2017 after the death of Andrew Holland, a mentally ill inmate who had been tied to a restraint chair for almost two days. About 10 days ago another inmate inside the jail committed suicide.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune recently released a report saying the county jail had the sixth-highest inmate death rate in California over the last five years, tabulated from data released by the California Department of Justice. Joining KCBX News’ Tyler Pratt are Matt Fountain of the Tribune and Phil Reese of the Sacramento Bee, both of whom reviewed the data.

PRATT: Matt, how many deaths occurred in the San Luis Obispo County county jail over this period?

FOUNTAIN: Sure, so between 2012 and 2017, there were 12 deaths in-custody deaths at the jail. That includes, I believe, two people who died in a hospital outside of the jail. So that should be differentiated. But the current rate that we calculated, based on this new data that was released by the DOJ in July, shows that there is 9.1 deaths per one million inmate days over that five year period. Which is almost double the statewide average of 4.7 deaths per one million inmate days.

PRATT: Phil, it’s my understanding that you reviewed state stats for the Sac Bee. Explain to us how you found this rate out?

REESE: So the [California] Department of Justice publishes this data, and every year they update it, and this was their latest update. Each state and local law enforcement agency reports when they have a death in custody. So I went through this database which is available online—openjustice.DOJ.ca.gov—and I downloaded it and just ran some calculations based on this and also some jail population numbers from another state agency.

PRATT: Now there are counties that have a higher number of deaths like Los Angeles County, where 149 inmates died in the same time frame. But we have a higher average death rate. Phill, can you break this down?

REESE: The rate is higher, but the number is lower than some of these other counties. So Los Angeles is a huge county—it has many, many, many more prisoners. So the reason we calculate the rate is so we can compare between a big county like Los Angeles and a smaller county like San Luis Obispo. The rate is the number of deaths per X inmate days, so it's just a way of making a point of comparison.

PRATT: So, Matt, we are kind of a smaller county compared to all the other California counties. What are some of the reasons this rate could be so high?

FOUNTAIN: Well, we've heard a lot of different theories on that. And law enforcement will be quick to say that there's been many changing state laws. The population of the jail is certainly a much different population than it was pre-2011, when we had state prison realignment, which sent lower level offenders from state prison who would be getting a prison sentence, to be serving their time at the county jail for much longer than county jail was ever meant to be housing people. You could also look at the different counties who we are lower than—if you look at Napa, Humboldt, Shasta, and Stanislaus County, I believe basically that we have somewhat of a more transient population based on where we are geographically.

PRATT: It's hard to talk about the SLO County Jail without talking about mental health inside the jail; is this a contributing factor?

FOUNTAIN: Absolutely. Based on data that Phil also reviewed in May, he found that San Luis Obispo County tops the state in the number of inmates receiving psychotropic medication. Now, there might be some differences in how different jurisdictions report that and local officials kind of debate our findings on that one. But it does seem that we have a huge population in the county jail in need of mental health services.

PRATT: Matt, I know you reached out to the county sheriff's office for comment. We also did as well. They're not commenting on this matter. Do you know if there's anything that's being done to counter this problem within the jail?

FOUNTAIN: Yes, I believe that they are working on many different fronts. They are opening a new behavioral health wing here soon. They just opened a new medical unit. They did change a lot of the county policies saying how long you can keep a inmate in isolation, which is contributing so much to the degradation of their mental health inside the county jail.

PRATT: Well, I know you're going to keep covering this issue; we're going to keep following it as well. [I’ve been speaking with] Matt Fountain of the San Luis Obispo Tribune and Phil Reese with the Sacramento Bee.

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