Inmate who died at SLO County Jail was under psychiatric evaluation

Russell Alan Hammer, 62, was in San Luis Obispo County Jail on a pending domestic violence case when he died in jail custody Monday.
Russell Alan Hammer, 62, was in San Luis Obispo County Jail on a pending domestic violence case when he died in jail custody Monday.

A 62-year-old Hanford man who died Monday at the San Luis Obispo County Jail had been behind bars for about two weeks while facing domestic violence charges and was under evaluation by court-ordered psychiatrists, according to court records.

Russell Alan Hammer, died at about 3:05 p.m. Monday after complaining to a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office deputy that he wasn’t feeling well.

The Sheriff’s Office said Hammer lost consciousness while being wheeled into the jail’s medical unit and jail staff were unable to revive him.

A preliminary autopsy conducted Tuesday morning showed Hammer died from a massive pulmonary embolism due to deep vein thrombosis in his left calf, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He also suffered from peripheral vascular disease and cellulitis in the same leg.

Results of the autopsy will not be final until toxicology results come back in four to six weeks, the Sheriff’s Office said, but there are no signs that drug or alcohol were a factor.

Investigators don’t suspect foul play, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Hammer, who was no longer listed on the jail’s website Tuesday morning, was accused of stabbing his wife with a butcher knife and was charged Nov. 8 with corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and assault with a deadly weapon, both felonies.

Hammer’s attorney, Ronald Crawford, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Hammer had not entered a plea in the case. Records show that he was in the care of San Luis Obispo County Mental Health from at least Nov. 8 until Nov. 13, when Crawford declared a doubt of his mental competency to stand trial.

Superior Court Judge Dodie Harman then suspended his criminal case and appointed two forensic psychologists to perform psychiatric evaluations.

Hammer was due back in court Dec. 6 for review of their findings.

According to the Sheriff’s Office news release, a correctional deputy conducting cell inspections spoke to Hammer around 3 p.m. Monday, when Hammer said he was not feeling well. The deputy called for nearby medical staffers, who arrived and spoke to Hammer, the release said. Hammer was alert and conscious at the time.

As he was being wheeled to the medical unit, Hammer was talking with medical staff. Then he suddenly lost consciousness, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Medical and correctional staff, and later paramedics, used CPR and an automatic electronic defibrillator but were unable to revive Hammer.

Hammer’s is the 12th death in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody since 2012, and the third such death this year. The County Jail’s death rate is more than double the most recent national average.

The county has been on the defensive for the 10 months following the Jan. 22 death of former inmate Andrew Holland.

Holland died after being left in a jail restraint chair for nearly two days. The county announced in January that it awarded Holland’s family a $5 million settlement for his death.

Since Holland’s death, the FBI launched an investigation into the facility to determine whether civil rights violations played a role in any inmate deaths. An FBI spokeswoman on Tuesday said that investigation is still ongoing.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office is also still investigating the death of former jail inmate Kevin Lee McLaughlin, who died of a heart attack in April shortly after asking to go to the hospital.

County officials have defended jail staff, saying the jail is overburdened by inmates with medical issues and mental health needs, and lacks oversight in ensuring the well-being of its inmates.

Jail officials have reviewed and changed several of their policies for dealing with mentally ill inmates since Holland’s death, but two jail sources told The Tribune on Tuesday on condition of anonymity that the county has struggled to maintain adequate medical staff at the jail.

Hammer’s in-custody death came the same day that the county announced the resignation of county Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm, who oversees medical treatment at the jail. Hamm will leave his post in April.

Hamm said in the release that the agency needs a “fresh perspective” to deal with health care challenges. However, his separation agreement was approved in closed session by county officials Monday morning, before Hammer’s death.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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