Inmate death rate at SLO County Jail ranks 6th highest in California

San Luis Obispo County Jail had the sixth-highest inmate death rate of all California counties over the last five years, according to newly released data reviewed by The Tribune and The Sacramento Bee.

Updated California Department of Justice figures list 12 inmate deaths that have occurred while the person was in jail custody, from 2012 through 2017.

That’s 9.1 deaths per 1 million inmate days over that period — almost double the statewide average rate of 4.7 deaths per 1 million inmate days.

Excluding rural counties with three or fewer jail deaths, five California counties had higher jail death rates than San Luis Obispo: Tehama, Napa, Humboldt, Shasta and Stainslaus counties.

The newspapers did not examine how the SLO County Jail compares to nationwide data for this article. However, a review from 2015 found the jail was more than double the 2014 national average for inmate deaths.
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Michael Wayne Nonella, pictured here in 2016, allegedly hung himself in the SLO County Jail Sept. 1. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Those latest statewide figures do not include the death of Michael Wayne Nonella, who the Sheriff’s Office says hung himself in his jail cell last Saturday.

Nonella, 47, of Arroyo Grande, died 10 days after his probation officer recommended the court order he undergo a mental health safety assessment. It’s unclear whether that was performed.

The Sheriff’s Office says the District Attorney’s Office is investigating Nonella’s death and has declined to provide further details.

These latest local inmate death rate adds to other notable findings by the two McClatchy newspapers, including a report in May that San Luis Obispo County tops the state in the number of inmates receiving psychotropic medication.

The county also ranked highest and second-highest in California, respectively, for the percentage of inmates waiting for mental health treatment and the percentage of open mental health cases at the jail in the eight-year period from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2017, based on data submitted by the county to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

County officials dispute those latter findings, telling The Tribune they misreported their own data for decades in one of those categories and that differing interpretations of the agency’s survey questions may skew results in the other two.

Amid a series of state and federal lawsuits related to recent inmate deaths and allegations of inadequate and inhumane treatment, the FBI has also launched an investigation into alleged civil rights abuses following the controversial death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland in January 2017.

A spokeswoman for the FBI said the agency’s investigation remains ongoing. Agents conducted interviews of county employees in June.

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The county says it has made significant changes in policy for how mentally and medically ill inmates are treated.

Different county departments are in the process of participating in the National Stepping Up Initiative to improve mental health resources for people in the criminal justice system.

In May, the county Board of Supervisors also amended the county’s 2018-19 budget to allocate an additional $2.3 million to reform and expand health care services for jail inmates following a year of public debate and controversy over Holland’s death.

The Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday opened its new 8,000-square foot medical programs unit to provide better medical, dental, and mental health treatment as well as double the jail’s capacity to provide educational and substance abuse treatment programs.

That facility is scheduled to begin receiving inmate patients in a few weeks.

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Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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