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After 13 Jail Deaths in Eight Months of 2022, California Sheriff Finally Reveals How They Happened

by Benjamin Tschirhart

It took a civil complaint to make Sheriff Chad Bianco talk. The five jails he runs for California’s Riverside County had seen 13 deaths in the first eight months of 2022 — the highest number for any year on record. And until the press conference on September 16, 2022, there was no information on the identities of the dead, nor how they died.

Attorney Christian Contreras, representing the family of one dead detainee, 29-year-old Richard Matus, Jr., was preparing to bring a lawsuit against the county for negligence, assault and other violations, citing the “mysteriousness and secrecy that the county is engaging in … they’re not providing the families any information whatsoever.” That’s when Sheriff Bianco finally made a statement.

Assuring the public that “we are very, very alarmed when we have inmate deaths,” he said nevertheless that it was crucial to “make sure we know everything about what happened.” The official response to prisoner deaths includes a coroner’s report and an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office. And as it happens, both involve Bianco, who is not only Sheriff but also coroner for Riverside County. His official explanation for the lack of transparency surrounding the deaths in his jails was that findings can change during the course of an investigation, so he was reluctant to report preliminary findings.

Nevertheless, Sheriff/ Coroner Bianco finally announced a cause of death for the 13 people who had died so far that year while in Riverside County custody. For Matus, Jr., it was a fentanyl overdose. The same for four others. Bianco said that two of the remaining deaths were suicides, and one was a homicide. That was Robert Niroula, previously convicted of a 2008 manslaughter, who was back in jail for retrial when he died. The remaining five deaths were chalked up to “medical reasons,” a term both broad and vague that includes “one inmate who swallowed a pencil and cut an artery.”

The Sheriff also stated that his jail guards had prevented around 70 fentanyl-related deaths during the year. He didn’t explain exactly how the potent opiate was entering the jails, only that “they keep smuggling it in, and they keep using it.” But he vowed that “huge” investigations were underway to “make sure that if we missed something, how can we stop this one in the future?”

Of course, the dying didn’t stop. A woman passed away at the Robert Presley Detention Center (RPDC) on November 20, 2022. The same lockup then recorded the year’s 18th jail death for the county on December 19, 2022. No names were provided, nor any cause of death except that “foul play” was not suspected.

That wasn’t true of 2023’s first death on January 12, when Mark A. Spratt, 24, succumbed to injuries allegedly inflicted by a fellow detainee, Micky R. Payne, 33, at Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta. Another death followed at RPDC on February 6, 2023; again, no name or cause of death was provided.

“Something is wrong,” insisted Contreras. “Something needs to be done to insure more people who are innocent until proven guilty don’t die in these jails.” 

Sources: Desert Sun, Riverside Press-Enterprise

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