by Photo courtesy of the San Diego Sherifs Department

Community Activists and families of deceased inmates gathered on Feb.4 outside the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to demand action following an unsettling California State Audit report that found “underlying systemic issues” resulting in inmate fatalities. 

The State Auditor released the report on Feb. 3 found over 185 deaths in the span of 15 years in anylizing the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s practices. The State Auditor called for legislative action to ensure that the department implements “meaningful changes”. 

“The audit report from the state on the San Diego County’s in-custody deaths is appalling,” said Yusef Miller, of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition and the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego. “We’re not here gloating about the report. We’re here in frustration that it took this report for any traction to happen.”

The report noted the department “did not consistently follow up with” inmates who needed medical and mental health services, and concluded the lack of attention contributed to their deaths.

“Our review identified deficiencies with how the sheriff’s department provides care for and protects incarcerated individuals (that) likely contributed to in-custody deaths. … In light of the ongoing risk to inmate safety, the sheriff’s department’s inadequate response to deaths, and the lack of effective independent oversight, we believe that the legislature must take action to ensure that the sheriff’s department implements meaningful changes,” wrote Michael Tilden, acting State Auditor.  

Several days after being arrested at the San Diego County Central Jail, a Chula Vista man, Saxon Rodriguez, 22, died on July 20, 2021, an autopsy ruled as a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose. According to Sabrina Weddle, the older sister of Rodriguez, he was 22 for 19 days. 

“The detective told me my brother was last accounted for and alive at 7 a.m. and found [dead] at 10,” Weddle said. “That’s a three-hour gap. What were they doing? Where were they at?”

Weddle said her brother's death was not included in the State Audit report and blames Sheriff Bill Gore and his staff for inadequate caring for her brother and demands changes within the department.

Rodriguez’s mother, Sundee Weddle said she and her family have tried to get more information about her son’s death, including video surveillance, but the Sheriff’s Department has not been transparent.

“They make it difficult for us to get closure, to get justice. I do feel that someone needs to be held accountable for my son’s death," she said. 

In response to the audit, Sheriffs officials said that the recommendations “also align with our existing practices (and) current and plans, as well as proactive efforts to continuously improve health care services and the safety of our jails”. 

They also said San Diego is not much different from other counties when it comes to people dying behind bars and stressed that they are making strides toward reducing in-custody deaths.

On Thursday, Assemblywoman Dr. Akilah Weber, who requested the audit, said that she may introduce a bill to require the Sheriff’s Department to adopt the suggested reforms.

The findings were “deeply disturbing”, according to Weber in a joint statement with Sen.Toni Atkins. 

They say the report “shines a light on a situation that needs to be changed”, and calls for Legislative and San Diego delegation colleagues to “remain committed to accountability and to ensuring that the recommendations laid out by the State Auditor are implemented.”

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