The Vista Detention Facility / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

A state legislative committee approved a request Wednesday from a group of San Diego lawmakers to investigate years of deaths in San Diego County jails. Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, who took the lead on making the request of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee,  described the deaths as a “a systemic issue that requires an outside review.”

Since Bill Gore was appointed sheriff in 2009, more than 150 people incarcerated in San Diego jails have died. While some deaths were unpreventable, several recent investigations — and lawsuits — have tied deaths and serious injuries to lapses in policies and practices.

A 2018 investigation by Disability Rights California described San Diego jails as “a system failing people with mental illness.” A 2019 county grand jury report noted that a suicide at the South Bay Detention Facility could have been prevented if the Sheriff’s Department had simply followed through on a plan to replace vent covers from which people were hanging themselves.

And an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune in September 2019 found that San Diego jails had the highest mortality rate among large county jail systems, including Los Angeles County.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of the audit. Yusef Miller from Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego said the death of Elisa Serna in November 2019 got his organization’s attention and compelled it to reach out to Weber. According to a lawsuit filed by Serna’s family, the 24-year-old was pregnant, withdrawing from heroin and also suffering from pneumonia. She had a seizure in her cell and hit her head against a wall as she fell to the floor. Even though a deputy and nurse saw her collapse, they did nothing and Serna was found dead an hour later.

Serna’s mother, Paloma, provided testimony at the hearing.

“Elisa’s death was so preventable,” she said. “She needed hydration. She begged for an IV. These deaths continue because no one is held accountable. We demand transparency through a state audit.”

Phyllis Jackson, whose son, Michael Wilson, died of heart failure in San Diego’s Central Jail on Feb. 14, 2019, told legislators that her son was denied life-saving heart medication.

“Michael had a serious heart defect. His life depended on medicine,” Jackson said. “The jail was advised over 10 days that he needed it and it was ignored.”

Jackson has also filed a lawsuit. So far this year alone, San Diego County has paid out nearly $5 million in settlements in four cases involving jail deaths.

Erika Frierson, the assistant sheriff in charge of jails, told the committee that the Sheriff’s Department is “committed to providing the best medical and mental health care” to the people it incarcerates. Frierson said the sheriff welcomed the audit.

“Our department is constantly seeking expert advice in evaluating our procedures,” she said.

California state auditor Elaine Howle told the legislative committee that it’ll take about seven months to complete the audit. She said her staff will look into policies and procedures and whether the Sheriff’s Department took corrective action to improve inmate safety following a death. Howle said they’ll also look into demographic data and look for trends and, per Weber’s request, examine whether the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which investigates in-custody deaths, has the resources necessary to conduct thorough investigations. In 2017, the review board was forced to dismiss 22 death investigations due to a backlog of cases, but has since added staff to ensure all investigations are complete.

Kelly Davis

Voepel Won’t Pass Any Bills This Year

Assemblyman Randy Voepel is set to mark a less-than-desirable milestone for the year: None of his bills will pass through the Legislature.

Voepel introduced 13 bills this year, but none successfully passed the Assembly and onto the state Senate.

Voepel’s chief of staff, Gail Ramer, said there were multiple reasons why none of Voepel’s bills will pass this year.

For one, various subcommittees within the Assembly turned some of Voepel’s bills into two-year measures. That means those measures could still advance next year, in the second half of the current legislative session.

Second, Ramer blamed a decision made in 2019 by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to give all committee chairs the power to refuse to hear a bill in committee. She said the move meant some of Voepel’s bills never received a hearing.

Bills to allow electronic monitoring of patients in elder care facilities, and a bill related to funding school lunches, were among those that never received a hearing in committee.

“When a committee chair denies any bill a public hearing, they’re not only dismissing constituents’ only opportunity to voice their support, but they’re also denying the ability for debate,” Ramer said in a statement.

Thad Kousser, political science chair at the University of California, San Diego, agreed the rule change likely contributed to Voepel’s inability to pass a single bill this session.

“It’s rare, but not unprecedented,” he said of a lawmaker not advancing any measures. “We may see more and more of these members of the minority party not getting their bills to advance simply because they just don’t even get a chance to have that hearing and a vote.”

Aside from taking issue with the specifics of Voepel’s bills, it’s also possible lawmakers weren’t eager to collaborate with him. Voepel drew an enormous amount of criticism for his initial response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which he appeared to side with the rioters. He later clarified that he didn’t “condone or support the violence and lawlessness that took place.” A group of elected officials and national security experts, asked the Legislature to expel Voepel.

Other Republican members of San Diego’s state delegation, including Sens. Brian Jones and Pat Bates, and Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, each still have several measures alive in the Legislature.

Roemer said that in the absence of bills advancing in the Senate, Voepel’s office has been focused on helping constituents obtain unemployment benefits and working through problems with those claims.

Devin Whatley

The Recall Is on, Plus More San Diego Odds and Ends

Golden State News

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect that Yusef Miller was representing the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego during his public testimony.

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