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Deaths, Lawsuits Plague San Diego County Jail

Deaths, Lawsuits Plague San Diego County Jail

by Gary Hunter

Sixty prisoners died in San Diego County, California’s jail system over the past five years, but the facts surrounding those deaths sometimes remained a mystery as prisoners’ families waited for years and still received few answers. In some cases, the only answers came in the form of verdicts and settlements in wrongful death suits.

Deaths in the San Diego County jail are tracked on a form called BCIA-713, a single sheet of paper with pitifully little information. The form only shows where a prisoner died and how the death is classified. This single page is often all the information a family receives about a loved one’s death unless they file a lawsuit.

Families can also obtain a copy of the medical examiner’s report, but seldom does the report include details about any investigation into the death. Further, in most cases it takes six months to a year before the medical examiner’s report is released.

According to a series of articles published by San Diego City Beat, San Diego County had “the highest inmate mortality rate of California’s 10 largest jail systems between 2007 and 2012.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2013, p.1].

In 2013, Kristopher NeSmith, 21, a marine serving time in a Camp Pendleton brig on an assault charge, tried to hang himself three times. He spent his entire four-month brig sentence in a rubberized room wearing a Velcro suit as his condition continued to deteriorate.

NeSmith was later incarcerated at the Vista Detention Facility in San Diego County. His family called the jail staff, his public defender and even the District Attorney’s office to warn them of his past suicidal behavior. It didn’t help. NeSmith hung himself with a sheet on March 1, 2014. He was never placed in a psychiatric unit or monitored for suicide prevention, and was one of six prisoners who committed suicide in the county’s jail system that year.

NeSmith’s widow has filed a wrongful death suit alleging that jail staff failed to properly monitor her husband despite being aware that he was a danger to himself. The suit, filed in April 2015, remains pending. See: NeSmith v. County of San Diego, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00629-JLS-JMA.

Another prisoner who committed suicide, Robert Lubsen, 26, jumped from the second tier of a unit at the county’s Vista Detention Facility on February 6, 2013; he died six days later after being hospitalized. Lubsen had previously tried to hang himself in a police holding cell, and jail staff apparently did not notice the marks on his neck. In October 2014, the county agreed to pay $80,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Lubsen’s parents. See: Lubsen v. Holmes, County of San Diego Superior Court (CA), Case No. 37-2014-00083737-CU-PO-NC.

Daniel Sisson, 21, died from complications stemming from an asthma attack less than 48 hours after he was booked into a San Diego County jail in June 2011. His mother spent four years trying to find out what happened. Her lawsuit eventually required the county to produce surveillance video footage that showed guards had not checked on her son for hours. In November 2014 a jury awarded the family $3 million, finding the county and two nurses were deliberately indifferent to Sisson’s medical needs. County officials then asked the court to set aside the judgment.

“I felt like we’ve been battling it for so long, and we felt like going to the jury and having the verdict, we felt like we were going to have some closure,” said Sisson’s mother, Shaunda Brummett. “... You feel like, what are our rights? If the jurors spoke, then why aren’t they abiding by their end of the deal?”

The court denied the county’s motion for a new trial and the county appealed. The appeal was dismissed in April 2015 after the parties reached a settlement, including attorney’s fees, in the amount of $3.195 million. See: Brummett v. County of San Diego, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:12-cv-01428-BAS-BGS.

Another lawsuit, concerning the death of jail prisoner Ronnie Sandoval, remains pending. Sandoval died at the county’s Central Jail on February 23, 2014 after overdosing on meth; even though he reportedly had symptoms of being under the influence of drugs while being booked, he did not receive medical care.

“Our goal is to have zero inmate deaths,” said San Diego County Sheriff’s Commander John Ingrassia, “and we take each and every case very seriously.”

Not seriously enough, apparently, to stem the high number of deaths in the county’s jail system, nor seriously enough to fully inform family members about the circumstances of the deaths of their incarcerated loved ones.




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Related legal cases

NeSmith v. County of San Diego

Brummett v. County of San Diego

Lubsen v. Holmes