SLO County Jail inmate was taken off suicide watch before he hanged himself, attorney says

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.
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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.

A San Luis Obispo County Jail inmate who reportedly hanged himself in his cell two weeks ago was taken off suicide watch shortly before his death, according to an attorney for the family of the mentally ill Arroyo Grande man who died in custody Sept. 1.

The family of Michael Wayne Nonella says they want justice after staff at County Jail allegedly failed to get Nonella treatment and left him alone following at least one past suicide attempt at the jail.

“He was progressively going downhill, and I could hear the pain and the fear in his voice,” Judy Nonella, Michael’s mother, said Friday when recounting her last conversations with her son. “They should have had him in mental health (treatment) — he would be alive today.”

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office previously declined to comment on Nonella’s death pending the coroner’s investigation, which is ongoing, and denied a Tribune request for records related to his death.

Representatives for the department did not respond to another request for comment Friday afternoon.

Nonella, 47, was found hanging from pieces of bedding in his private cell during a scheduled check of inmates at 11:44 a.m., the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Life-saving measures by deputies and emergency personnel were unsuccessful. The Sheriff’s Office says Nonella was last seen alive at approximately 11:20 a.m. when a deputy delivered his lunch, the news release said.

The Sheriff’s Office said all inmate checks were completed on schedule that day, and added that Nonella’s death marked the third attempted suicide in the jail in the past month; two other inmates also attempted suicide Aug. 18, but deputies successfully intervened.

Nonella had been in custody since July 25 for charges of violation of his post release supervision. He was to be released Oct. 6, records show.

Court records show that his probation officer made a recommendation that the court order he undergo a mental health safety assessment roughly 10 days prior to his death. It is unclear if that was performed.

Since Nonella’s death, his family says they remain in the dark about what happened to him, and told The Tribune the Sheriff’s Office refuses to release an alleged suicide note.

Judy Nonella says the family retained Bay Area attorney Paula Canny, who represented the family of Andrew Holland, a 36-year-old Atascadero resident who died in January 2017 after being left in a restraint chair for 46 hours.

Canny has since represented other SLO County Jail inmates who were allegedly injured because of their treatment there and the family of another local man who died in custody in November 2017.

Michael Wayne Nonella in 2017 Courtesy photo

On Thursday, Canny confirmed that she is representing the Nonella family and said her investigators have already interviewed several inmates who were in jail custody the same time as Nonella.

Canny said one inmate told her investigator that Nonella had been isolated in a one-man jail cell for an unknown amount of time on suicide watch before he was transferred to another single cell in which he ultimately died.

According to the inmate, who said he had been housed in the same unit as Nonella, Nonella told him shortly after his release from suicide watch that custodial staff shouldn’t have let him out of observation.

Canny declined to provide The Tribune with the inmate’s name, but said that he’s no longer in jail custody.

According to Canny, the inmate told her investigator that Nonella had previously attempted suicide at the jail by hanging from a shirt.

Canny said Friday she had not yet received any records from the Sheriff’s Office regarding Nonella, but she is attempting to have the alleged suicide note returned to his family.

On Friday, Nonella’s mother said her son was born and raised in Arroyo Grande and enjoyed outdoor activities such as bicycling and swimming, as well as going to thrift shops with family. She described him as having a big heart and recounted memories of him helping others in need.

She also said he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, symptoms of which began to appear in his 20s. He struggled with his mental health, sometimes seeking county services at the encouragement of others, but also developed substance abuse issues.

Judy Nonella said her son’s behavior turned “desperate” after his arrest in July. She said he became “sullen,” “full of despair” and began experiencing panic attacks.

She said he told her on the phone that he was put in solitary cell more than once, and that his mental state deteriorated.

“He couldn’t handle the isolation,” Judy Nonella said, adding that she personally attempted to get help for him through the Sheriff’s Office to no avail. “I said he’s panicking in a bad way. He needs help.”

Though Judy Nonella is not yet clear on what happened to her son, she said he should not have been left in a cell by himself with materials that could be used for hanging if jail staff knew of any prior suicide attempts and that he was recently on suicide watch.

“It was almost like handing him a loaded gun,” she said.

Nonella leaves behind two parents, a sister and two adult children. His mother said he was to be best man at his sister’s wedding upon his release next month.

His is the 13th death to occur at County Jail since 2012; the last inmate to die in custody was Hanford man Russell Alan Hammer, 62, who died in November of pulmonary thrombo-embolism and deep vein thrombosis, according to the Coronor’s Office.

The FBI launched a civil rights investigation into the jail in May 2017, which remains ongoing.

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Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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