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KCBX Two-Way: Record numbers of inmates are dying in California

Jail Cells at Old Police Headquarters in San Diego.
Photo by Ryan McGrady
Jail Cells at Old Police Headquarters in San Diego.

An inmate in San Luis Obispo County died of cancer last week. In May, two inmates in Santa Barbara County died in one week, one of a possible overdose.

Beyond the Central Coast, inmate deaths are on the rise across the state. New reporting from CalMatters examines the record number of people who have died in California jails.

KCBX’s Amanda Wernik spoke with CalMatters reporter Nigel Duara discuss how lawmakers could address this issue. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your reporting. What did you find?

What we found in numbers released by the Department of Justice was that [at least] six California jails had a record number of deaths last year.

Those were in big counties and in small counties, and now, legislators are trying to propose some changes to the way the jails are operated.

What’s causing this record number of deaths?

What we do know is the consistent factor among these deaths is the health and safety treatment of inmates.

So, either preventing them from committing suicide if they're intent on committing suicide, or treating some undiagnosed medical conditions that they came in with. Then, of course, there's people who are killed by other inmates, and in some cases, correctional officers themselves are involved with the death of an inmate.

Your article mentions a proposed bill to address this problem. Can you tell us about that?

One of the focal points for looking at jails is in San Diego, where there have been an extraordinary number of deaths.

So, a legislator from San Diego is proposing that jails themselves be overseen, not by a sheriff, but what they would do is essentially create an inspector general position to oversee the jails, especially the health and safety stuff.

What concerns and criticisms have been raised about the bill?

The folks from law enforcement feel that having more oversight just doesn't have a point because they say they're doing a good enough job, and when people come into their jails and die, well, ‘that's just what happens.’

There are also folks who sue the jails, lawyers who were involved in inmate rights, who feel that this bill, even before it goes through more lobbying, already has too many holes that the stuff they look for, as far as changes in jails, wouldn't be accomplished by this bill.

Looking ahead, what changes do you think are happening in the landscape of inmate safety in California?

It looks like certainly there's legislative ambition to change things, but whether the changes they're proposing actually make a difference — that'll take at least a couple years to prove.

The original CalMatters article is available here.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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