U.S. Department of Justice plans to open investigation into SLO County Jail

Amid a series of deaths, lawsuits and an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged civil rights abuses of mentally and medically ill County Jail inmates, San Luis Obispo County officials now say the U.S. Department of Justice is getting involved.

The USDOJ “will be conducting an independent investigation to review the medical and mental health care of inmates in the jail,” the county announced in a news release Wednesday.

County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who has faced calls for his resignation over the deaths, wrote in prepared statement: “We welcome the investigation and any assistance and guidance to further improve areas identified by the Department of Justice.”

A county spokeswoman said the agency notified the County Counsel’s Office two weeks ago and assured them the investigation is to review systematic issues related to jail healthcare and mental health services, and to identify any necessary improvements.

Requests for comment from the USDOJ were not returned Wednesday.

The FBI formally launched an investigation into the county’s treatment of inmates in May 2017, a spokeswoman previously confirmed, after receiving at least one complaint related to the January 2017 death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland.

That investigation remained ongoing when The Tribune last checked with a media spokeswoman Sept. 10, though she could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

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Since January 2012, 13 inmates have died in County Jail custody, many of them from causes related to medical and mental health issues. Most recently, an inmate recommended for a mental health evaluation allegedly hung himself after being taken off suicide watch.

In addition to ongoing costs to defend against several ongoing lawsuits, San Luis Obispo County paid a $5 million settlement to Holland’s family in July 2017.

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‘Not looking at criminal activity’

On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal said she received a phone call roughly two weeks ago from an agent who said the federal agency was “aware of issues going on” in the county related to the jail, but would not reveal the source of their information or whether their involvement was specifically sparked by a complaint.

Neal said that unlike the FBI’s investigation into alleged federal civil rights abuses — which could result in criminal charges filed in state or federal court — the agent she spoke to said the agency will conduct an investigation If federal violations are identified, it will draft a report naming specific improvements to be made.

Those recommendations could come in the form of a consent decree, Neal said. The agent told her if no violations are found, the investigation will close without a report issued, she added.

“The FBI investigation is really focused on the Holland matter,” Neal said. “(The USDOJ) made it very clear they’re not looking at criminal activity; they’re looking at the system overall.”

A search of the USDOJ’s website shows the agency has conducted similar reviews of jails, prisons and detention centers that resulted in similar agreements.

Neal said she expects agents from the USDOJ’s Los Angeles office to travel to San Luis Obispo County within the next two weeks. They are expected to tour the jail facilities, interview officials and staff members and monitor the administration of services.

The county is currently gathering records requested by the agency such as policy guidelines, work-shift schedules and other materials that have already been provided to the FBI, Neal said.

She added that the USDOJ indicated its investigation would likely take more than eight months. She said the county has not had recent contact with the FBI.

The county is committed to working with the agency in curing any deficiencies identified during the investigation, Neal said.

Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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