After inmate dies Thursday, SLO County sheriff welcomes outside investigations

A San Luis Obispo County Jail inmate died while in custody shortly after he complained of shoulder pain early Thursday and was later found unresponsive and could not be revived, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

At Parkinson’s request, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office was scheduled to conduct an autopsy on the 60-year-old inmate — whose mother requested his name not be released until the rest of his family had been notified.

Thursday’s death is the second in San Luis Obispo County Jail this year and the 11th since January 2012.

Parkinson also asked the county District Attorney’s Office and the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office to investigate the most recent inmate death, as well as “any jail death that’s occurred that they felt was worthy of their own investigation.”

The Sheriff’s Office recently completed an investigation into the Jan. 22 death of inmate Andrew Holland, who was restrained in a plastic chair for nearly two days before he was found unresponsive in a cell, drawing outrage from the inmate’s family and county residents.

Thursday’s death

At the news conference Thursday, which was attended by Sheriff’s Office officials, District Attorney Dan Dow, and the head of the FBI’s criminal division in Los Angeles, Parkinson said the inmate who died Thursday complained of shoulder pain to a correctional deputy at 2:03 a.m.

The deputy called a nurse, who checked the inmate’s vital signs at 2:05 a.m. and sent him back to his bed in a lower-level security dormitory with 65 other men, Parkinson said.

A correctional deputy checked on the inmate about 3:15 a.m. after noticing his “distressed” breathing pattern and unresponsiveness. Deputies then began lifesaving measures, which included performing CPR and using a defibrillator, Parkinson said.

Once an ambulance arrived, paramedics took over administering aid, but they were unable to revive the man. They pronounced him dead at 3:52 a.m., Parkinson said. Foul play is not suspected. The inmates name is expected to be released Friday or Monday.

‘Our medical treatment has skyrocketed’

The inmate who died Thursday is the 11th person to die in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody in the past five years. The coroner ruled out homicide in each of those previous cases.

Parkinson blamed state prison realignment for what he said was an increase in jail deaths statewide in recent years. Assembly Bill 109, signed into law in 2011, transferred the responsibility of housing some inmates from state prison to county jails.

Realignment has increased the number of inmates held in county jail, requiring jails to provide mental and medical health care for more inmates spending more time in local custody.

“As a result, our medical treatment has skyrocketed as far as the number of visits in the jail,” he said.

Parkinson noted that in 2011, 100 jail deaths were reported by county jails in comparison to 141 in 2015, according to numbers he provided from the California Department of Justice.

That’s not a complete picture, however, because the number of jail deaths appear to have dipped in 2011. There were 120 deaths in county jails reported in 2010 and 140 in 2009, according to DOJ data.

Medical treatment in the jail is the responsibility of the San Luis Obispo County Health Agency. The county, through the health agency, employs nurses and other medical staff that serve jail inmates, while physicians are on contract.

“It’s a joint effort (with the Sheriff’s Office). In jails throughout the state, varying entities cover medical services. In this county, it is the health agency,” said Public Health Director Penny Borenstein.

All San Luis Obispo County Jail inmates are screened by a registered nurse before they are booked into custody. Physicians are on-site for scheduled times three hours a day, six days a week to see inmates who need a physician’s level of care, Borenstein said. Two to four people employed by the health department are at the jail at all times, and one physician is always on call.

At the news conference, Parkinson was unable to say what percentage of inmates have physical or mental health needs, but he called the numbers “staggering.”

“If you compare us to a hospital, generally, we have the most unhealthy population, per capita, very similar to a hospital,” he said.

‘No distinct pattern of deaths’

Coroner’s reports and Sheriff’s Office records show a variety of causes of deaths for inmates since 2012.

Holland died after being restrained in a chair for more than 46 hours. The coroner’s report noted that he had a 5-centimeter-long blood clot in an artery in his lung. An intrapulmonary embolism usually begins as a blood clot in a leg vein, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Last year, an inmate committed suicide with a razor blade while in a low-security dorm; another inmate died of cancer. In 2014, there were three inmate deaths with causes listed as H1N1 flu, a methamphetamine overdose, and a heroin overdose. In 2012, an inmate died of cardiac arrest related to morbid obesity.

“There has been no distinct pattern of deaths,” Parkinson said. “Every single one of our deaths are entirely different.”

Parkinson said he welcomes scrutiny from the District Attorney’s Office and FBI, and he said he would cooperate fully with their investigations.

“I need to assure the public that our goal is to look into this matter — and any other matter, for that sake — to determine if there was anything that could have or should have been done differently.”

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan