In 2014, Daniel Sisson’s family was awarded $3 million in a wrongful death lawsuit after he died while on appeal at Vista Jail following an asthma attack brought on by symptoms heroin withdrawal.
Years later, in 2019, Elisa Serna, who was a daily heroin user, was in withdrawal when she collapsed after a seizure and died in the detention and rehabilitation center’s isolation unit. from Las Colinas to Santee. Her family filed a lawsuit alleging the department was willfully indifferent to the 24-year-old’s medical needs.
Sisson and Serna are just two of hundreds of people who have died in county jails since 2006. This week, the San Diego County Sheriff‘s Department announced several new admissions procedures designed to improve health services for inmates. , including treatment programs for drug addicts. disorders — which can prevent this kind of death.
The changes were implemented at three county jails — Las Colinas, San Diego Central Jail in downtown San Diego, and Vista Detention Center — and come months after a state audit revealed that the sheriff’s department had repeatedly failed to adequately prevent and respond to inmate deaths.
From 2006 to 2021, more than 200 inmates have died in San Diego County jails. The high death rate was first identified in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s 2019 investigation, “Dying Behind Bars.”
Among its many criticisms, the audit said the department failed to ensure it correctly identified the medical and mental health needs of those in custody on admission.
Although the ministry said it had implemented several recent policy changes to prevent inmate deaths, the situation did not appear to have improved. Last year was the deadliest since at least 1999 with 18 deaths. There have been 10 deaths so far this year.
Before last week’s change, people who were incarcerated in local jails were already checked for a history of drug use, county officials said. Now some may also be asked to take a urine test. Ministry officials said the change would allow them to better identify inmates who may be suffering from drug or alcohol withdrawal while behind bars – a process that can have serious and even fatal side effects – so that they can be placed on the appropriate medications.

The department has also expanded its treatment plan for some people in custody to include buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder. In the past, the ministry only provided these types of drugs to detainees if they were prescribed them before being booked.
Department officials said deputies and officers won’t need to change their standard procedures when taking people to jail. There will be toilets in the admissions area where urine samples can be taken. Deputies and officers may also collect urine samples with lab sample bottles when processing people at a station or substation.
Medical staff at all three prisons are required to inform people that urine tests are for medical purposes only and that test results cannot be used as evidence or to charge a person with a crime. Individuals may refuse to provide samples, and refusals will be documented in their medical records.
The department also created the Medical Release/Booking Authorization Form in an effort to improve how hospitals report information about patients who are subsequently incarcerated.
Before the form was available, hospital staff passed patient information to prison medical staff through the arresting deputy or officer. That information was often vague or incomplete, and it was sometimes difficult to get additional information about a patient’s needs, department officials said.
Instead, the new forms – which contain information on follow-up care instructions, lab results and prescriptions – must be completed by hospital staff and then turned in through an arresting officer. or a prison medical staff assistant.
The department has also changed the way prison staff document abnormalities seen when inmates go through body scanners. Body scanners are used to determine if contraband, including weapons or drugs, is smuggled into prison.
If prison officials suspect the presence of foreign objects in a person’s body, that person is sent to the hospital for further examination. The new protocol requires prison staff to send a form to the hospital detailing everything observed to help medical staff treat themselves.
The San Diego County Chiefs and Sheriffs Association has notified county law enforcement of the new protocols. An instructional video has also been shared with local police departments, and it will also be shown to people who are booked in the prison admissions areas, department officials said.
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