San Diego County inmate suicide rate 'staggeringly' high, report claims

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new report is calling for San Diego County jail reforms to address mental health issues and inmate suicides.

From 2014-2016, 17 people have died by suicide while being held in a San Diego County jail facility, according to an investigation by Disability Rights California (DRC).

By this rate, the group says San Diego County's rate of inmate suicide is "staggeringly" high compared to national, statewide, and local data. During this three-year period, the county's rate of 107 deaths per 100,000 was double the national rate of 50 per 100,000, the group says.

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"People with mental health needs and their families deserve better," DRC Attorney Rebecca Cervenak said. "Without appropriate community services and improved conditions, people will continue to suffer."

The report says four aspects contribute to the high suicide rate: over-incarceration of people with mental health needs, lack of jail oversight, failure to provide mental health treatment and harmful solitary confinement, and a lack of efficient suicide prevention.

DRC spoke with jail staff, inmates, and San Diego Sheriff's Department (SDSO) leadership as part of their investigation.

The SDSO said they welcome feedback regarding the jail system and will work to improve procedures, but had a number of concerns with how data was gathered and recommendations were formed:

"The cornerstone of the report is the assertion that San Diego County jails have a suicide rate 'many times higher' than is found in similarly sized county jail systems.

To support this claim, DRC cites to a series of San Diego CityBeat articles from 2013-2014 that made the same assertion. The Sheriffs Department looked into these claims when the City Beat articles were first published, and found them to be alarmist and misleading. However, because these misleading claims have since resurfaced in legal briefs filed by plaintiffs' attorneys seeking money judgments against the county, as well as in DRC's report, the county retained former San Diego State University Statistics Professor, Dr. Colleen Kelly to review the 2010-2017 jail suicide data from the ten largest California counties and create an appropriate, accurate comparison of the suicide rates.

One of Dr. Kelly's key findings is that the DRC report, like the City Beat articles before it, took a fundamentally flawed approach in comparing suicide data from different jail systems."

DRC says despite SDSO's response, they believe there remain steps San Diego County's jail system needs to take immediately to address the risk of suicide and mental health needs.

Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin looks into the report on 10News at 6 p.m.

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