SLO County Jail is under FBI investigation after 11 inmate deaths

Sheriff Ian Parkinson holds a press conference on April 13, 2017, to talk about the death of inmate Kevin Lee McLaughlin.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson holds a press conference on April 13, 2017, to talk about the death of inmate Kevin Lee McLaughlin. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The FBI is investigating the San Luis Obispo County Jail and whether civil rights violations played a role in a series of inmate deaths, an agency spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The San Luis Obispo County’s District Attorney’s Office — which has received several “inquiries of concern” from county residents following the deaths of 11 inmates in jail custody since 2012, according to District Attorney Dan Dow — is referring all inquiries to the FBI. The DA’s Office said it’s not investigating the jail or inmate deaths itself.

Laura Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said Tuesday that the agency has an open civil rights investigation, which she said began after Sheriff Ian Parkinson said in an April news conference that he welcomed other agencies’ oversight following the death of inmate Kevin Lee McLaughlin, who died of a heart attack shortly after asking to go to the hospital.

Parkinson was accompanied at that conference by Dow and the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles Criminal Division, Sean Ragan.

Eimiller said the FBI started its investigation in response to Parkinson’s invitation but declined to provide further details about its focus. She said that the agency takes into consideration complaints it receives from the public.

Eimiller said there’s no time frame for the investigation. Results will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. to determine if any prosecution is warranted, she said.

“It’s a matter of, ‘We’ll do what we need to do,’ ” Eimiller said.

Last Thursday, a spokesman for the DA’s Office told The Tribune that his office was asked to investigate McLaughlin’s death, and is in the final stages of that investigation, but has not investigated any of the other deaths at the jail.

The family of Andrew Holland, who died while in jail custody in January, last week settled a potential lawsuit against the county for $5 million, which it says it will use to form a nonprofit to advocate for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system..

Holland, 36, died of an embolism Jan. 22 after spending 46 hours strapped to a restraint chair inside a glass observation cell normally used to sober inmates.

The county has not admitted any guilt in Holland’s death, which it instead blamed on “systemic” issues stemming from an increase in mentally ill and violent inmates at the County Jail due to state sentencing reform. Parkinson maintains that jail staff followed all protocols during Holland’s two days in restraints and that the restraint chair did not cause the blood clot to form.

The county says it has implemented a host of reforms. Such reforms may have saved Holland’s life.

Holland’s family has called on the Sheriff to resign, and social media commenters have encouraged residents to contact the county with their concerns.

On Monday, Dow said he received emails from 12 residents, who asked his office to investigate and prosecute any party responsible for Holland’s death. He replied that because the FBI was conducting an investigation, the DA’s Office would not.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1