by Photo courtesy of San Diego County jail

The death of 15 San Diego County jail inmates this year alone lead the Board of Supervisors to unanimously pass a measure aimed to prevent further deaths.

The measure comes after five individuals died in custody during the month of July alone. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has identified a shifting nature in the deaths occurring in County jails, including the proliferation of drugs like fentanyl, which are a major driver of deaths among incarcerated individuals. 

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher’s proposal includes $200,000 for the latest body scanner technology to intercept and stop drugs such as fentanyl from being brought into the jails. Under the measure, the director of the Department of Purchasing and Contracting is authorized to purchase up to eight body scanners over the next five years. 

The measure includes expediting staff incentives and strategies included in an employee compensation ordinance also passed Tuesday, exploring new strategies for care and safety, including additional wellness teams and expanded access to medication-assisted treatment, and the purchase of an additional body scanner, with the option for eight more over the next five

With this year’s county jail death toll of 15 individuals, the county said it is on track to outpace last year’s 18, the previous high mark in recent years.

According to recent urinalysis data collected by the Sheriff’s Department, of the 504 manual urine drug screen tests conducted at the time of booking between July 1 and July 24, 419 had a positive test result for at least one substance, meth being the most common.    

It was so common that one out of every two manual drug screening tests was positive for meth. 

Of all those screened, 197 tested positive for fentanyl, the leading synthetic opioid that is driving overdose deaths in the nation. County officials reported that as of Aug. 4, there have been 129 total suspected jail overdose incidents with Narcan deployment so far this year

 Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said the county is facing a crisis in  its jails and has been for a long time, "but this July has been devastating.''

Supervisor Joel Anderson asked Sherriff Anthony Ray “if deaths continue because of illegal drugs in our jail system, is there any research in terms of building a case as to why we should be scanning or should not be scanning?” 

According to Ray, the agency has had internal discussions regarding the topic. 

“We investigate every allegation of someone bringing narcotics inside the jail. We have had those allegations. Over the last five years, we have had no proof or concrete evidence or cases sustained about narcotics coming in,” Ray said 

Ray said that the two primary ways drugs come into prisons are through the mail and carrying through body cavities. 

“We know that is where the narcotics are coming in so we are putting all of our efforts right now, but we are open to coming up with a way in the future to search our folks,” Ray said  
Supervisors will receive a report in  60 days detailing how the measure is working. 

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