SLO County Jail's inmate death rate is higher than U.S. average

San Luis Obispo County Jail
San Luis Obispo County Jail

Tuesday’s death of Sean Michael Alexander marked the fifth inmate to die after being in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail, making the facility’s rate for inmate deaths far higher than the national average in both 2014 and so far this year.

An investigation into Alexander’s death is in the preliminary stages.

Sheriff detectives are reviewing the matter to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing on the part of either employees or inmates; that includes a review of surveillance footage of his cell the morning of his death, according to San Luis Obispo County Undersheriff Tim Olivas.

An autopsy was conducted Wednesday by the county coroner. Toxicology results are not expected to be released until early May.

After those investigations are completed, an In-Custody Death Review Board — which includes representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, county Public Health, county Mental Health and County Counsel — will review Alexander’s death and, if warranted, make recommendations for changing jail policies, Olivas said.

“We recognize that any death is tragic, whether it happens within the community or while in custody,” he said. “There’s some dedicated hardworking employees (in the jail), and this is a tragedy to them too when someone passes away. It is not something we take lightly.”

Alexander, 33, died Tuesday morning after falling unconscious at the jail.

Jail logs show he was booked into the County Jail on March 18 for a probation violation for being under the influence of a controlled substance.

He was found unconscious just before 3 a.m. Tuesday in his single cell by correctional deputies, who began life-saving measures. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Though Alexander had been observed by deputies during the night in a kneeling position at the side of his bed as though he were praying, deputies did not consider him to be showing signs of distress. When deputies noticed his head on the bed, they stepped inside the cell and found him unresponsive, Olivas said.

Alexander was housed in a single “step-down” cell, which is halfway between a padded safety cell and a general population cell, Olivas said.

Deputies check on inmates in step-down and general cells once every 30 minutes, though state law only requires that they be checked once an hour, Olivas said.

Asked whether the jail policy should change to 15-minute check periods, Olivas said it is not feasible based on staff levels.

There was a surveillance camera positioned to see inside of Alexander’s cell, Olivas said, because he was in a step-down cell.

The jail has about 60 surveillance cameras for both men and women. That number will reach almost 200 once the women’s jail expansion project — which includes installing extra surveillance equipment for the entire jail — is complete in October 2016.

Currently, most cells are not equipped with cameras to protect inmate privacy, Olivas said, though most corridors and hallways and other strategic locations are fitted with time-stamped cameras that can verify if and when deputies conduct safety checks.

A history with law enforcement

Sept. 23, 2013, Tribune article

Earlier that month, San Luis Obispo police officers executed a search warrant at Alexander’s home and discovered a loaded pistol-grip shotgun, a loaded rifle, several hundred rounds of ammunition and bandoliers loaded with shotgun shells, according to police. Alexander was not arrested, but the items were removed from the home in the interest of public safety.

Previous inmate deaths

Investigations into the inmate deaths in 2014 led to one recommendation for change, according to Olivas. Following a January 2014 death of an inmate later determined to have contracted the H1N1 virus, all incoming inmates are now medically screened regardless of whether they show signs of illness.

The FBI reviewed one of the recent inmate deaths based on an allegation made by family members but signed off on the county’s review, Olivas said. He did not name the inmate.

“If they found any wrongdoing, you would know,” he said.

The Tribune could not reach the California Board of State and Community Corrections on Wednesday for information on recent inspections at the jail.

A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice stated the national average of inmate deaths at county jails in 2012 was 123 deaths per 100,000 inmates, or 0.12 percent.

Though national data for inmate deaths is not yet available for 2014, last year the San Luis Obispo County Jail reported three deaths, or 0.48 percent, based on the jail’s fourth-quarter average inmate population of 616 inmates.

So far this year, the jail has had an average population of 684 inmates and two deaths, Olivas said, for an average of 0.29 percent.

The Sheriff's Office has posted a statement on its website and its Facebook page addressing recent inmate deaths.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune