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Family of California Prisoner Who Committed Suicide Settles Suit for $595,000

by Scott Grammer

Jason Nishimoto, 44, committed suicide on August 27, 2015 by hanging himself with a bedsheet after being placed in solitary confinement at the Vista Detention Facility (VDF) in San Diego, California.

Nishimoto had been diagnosed as a “high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic” at age 18, and, according to a wrongful death suit filed by his family in federal court on June 18, 2018, the medications he took caused him “to suffer from serious side effects such as morbid obesity, restless leg syndrome, and symptoms resembling Parkinson’s disease. Jason would constantly feel like his legs were on fire. He also began developing muscle spasms throughout his body. Towards the end of his life, Jason ‘wanted out’ as he could no longer tolerate his illness and the side effects of the medication he took to control it.” According to the complaint, Nishimoto had attempted suicide three times in the last five months of his life.

On September 24, 2015, Nishimoto reportedly attempted suicide again by swallowing a bottle of Klonopin, a medication used to treat and prevent seizures, panic disorder and akathisia – a movement disorder. His mother tried to take him to a hospital but he resisted. His brother called police so Nishimoto could be hospitalized on a “5150 hold,” and told the dispatcher that Nishimoto was mentally ill and had attempted suicide several times.

Deputies arrived at the home and arrested Nishimoto for assault. His brother explained to the deputies that Nishimoto had tried to commit suicide. They took him to the Tri-City Medical Center for medical clearance then transported him to VDF, where Nurse Leah Gache asked him various intake questions and wrote in her notes, “seen at TCMC claimed he took a bunch of Klonopin yesterday.” According to the complaint filed by Nishimoto’s family, “Based on this admission, the death investigators quoted Charge Nurse Salter, stating that Jason should have been placed in an enhanced observation cell (herein ‘EOH’). Defendant Gache’s failure to house Jason in an EOH cell started a series of events that eventually lead to Jason’s death.”

That series of events included Nishimoto being put in administrative segregation instead of an EOH cell, despite the fact that deputies knew he had just attempted suicide and was still experiencing the effects of the Klonopin he had taken, and that he would receive neither help for his mental illness nor suicide precautions. Instead, Nishimoto would “spend twenty-three hours a day secluded and isolated, without medications.”

On September 25, 2015, Nishimoto’s mother was contacted by VDF’s contract psychiatric nurse, Anne Brantman, who was employed by Correctional Physicians Medical Group (CPMG). A discussion ensued about Nishimoto’s condition and medications, and the nurse said that “she was unsure if they could get Jason’s medicine because they were too expensive and that she would schedule a psych appointment for August 27, 2015” – the day Nishimoto took his own life. His mother then told the nurse directly about his suicide attempts. The nurse responded, “Don’t worry mom, we’ll take good care of your son.”

On February 4, 2019, county officials agreed to a $595,000 settlement with Nishimoto’s family. Danielle Pena, the family’s attorney, said that county records indicated there were 17 suicides in San Diego’s jail system from 2014 to 2016, most of which involved prisoners with mental illnesses. The lawsuit “generated significant media attention that, in turn, prompted investigations by the San Diego County Grand Jury and Disability Rights California, an independent watchdog group,” Pena said. “Both recommended modifications to the jails’ suicide prevention programs and deputy and staff training, and the county did that. And in 2017, they reported zero jail suicides. So I like to think this case made a difference.” See: Nishimoto v. San Diego, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01974-BEN-LL. 


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Related legal case

Nishimoto v. San Diego