Special Reports

SLO County sheriff rejects calls for his resignation in interview on jail death

In a wide-ranging interview with The Tribune, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said he didn't know anything about a County Jail inmate being placed in a restraint chair for nearly two days until after the inmate died, and he rejected calls for his resignation.

Parkinson has faced criticism since the March 16 release of jailhouse video showing the death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland — who died of an embolism caused by a blood clot after spending 46 hours in a plastic restraint chair. The death resulted in a $5 million settlement between the family and the county.

But in his first on-the-record in-person interview with The Tribune since Holland's death on Jan. 22, 2017, Parkinson said that all members of his department's staff followed policies and protocols that were in place at the time, though he repeatedly said he could not answer for two other departments that also failed to prevent Holland's death: the public and behavioral health departments.

"I wish I could have predicted a policy issue that did not call for a time period in restraints," Parkinson said. "I don’t think that anybody doesn’t agree that he belonged at Mental Health and that issue should have been forced."

He also said he didn't participate in critical decisions made over Holland's last 48 hours, explained the context around a correctional deputy seen laughing in the video, and responded to accusations that his department tried to cover up the circumstances around Holland's death.

Holland, 36, died 12 days after a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ordered that he be transferred to the county's 16-bed psychiatric facility for treatment of his diagnosed schizophrenia. Instead, jail staff confined him in a solitary cell until he began punching himself in the face the afternoon of Jan. 20.

Video shows riot gear-clad jail staffers transporting Holland on a gurney to a cell normally used to house intoxicated inmates. There, he was strapped naked to the restraint chair, where he was left for nearly 46 straight hours and checked on from outside roughly every 15 minutes. Correctional deputies, and sometimes mental health and medical staff, entered the cell every 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours to rotate Holland's limbs, and sometimes offer him food and water.

On the afternoon of Jan. 22, Holland was let out of the chair and left writhing on the floor of another cell, where deputies can be seen watching him intermittently from outside as he struggled to breathe and, finally, lost consciousness. After deputies entered the cell, they and a later a Cal Fire medic crew tried unsuccessfully to revive Holland.

The Coroner's Office, which is run by the Sheriff's Office, later ruled his death "natural."

The filmed events contradict the county's version of events released a day after Holland's death, though Parkinson maintains that's "a matter of description and interpretation."

The FBI is currently investigating allegations of civil rights abuses at the jail, where 12 inmates have died since January 2012. Parkinson took office in 2011.

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'A tough situation'

The Tribune obtained roughly 100 hours of video capturing Holland's last 48 hours in custody, footage that includes different angles of the same events.

Asked how much he's personally viewed, the sheriff said he's seen "almost all of it," minus some of the repetition.

"It’s a difficult video to watch,” he said. "It’s a tough situation."

Despite the fact that Holland died in his department's care, Parkinson said no one from the Sheriff's Office has faced any discipline over Holland's death. He says his employees followed all the rules as were written at the time, which were vague and said inmates should be restrained "no longer than is reasonably necessary."

"Our responsibilities, our policies were followed, and that’s my expectation. That’s the public’s expectation," he said.

IMG_IMG_IMG_Drew_4_1_RDB_5_1_K1C9963M_L339269749 (2).JPG
Andrew Holland

Parkinson told The Tribune for the first time that he wasn't involved in any way with Holland's treatment, nor did he know anything about it until that Sunday night, after Holland was dead.

"I have never, in seven years that I’ve been the sheriff, (ordered) restraints both in the field and in the jail. I’m not there," he said. "It would be not only impractical but slightly absurd to believe that I could — that they would have to check with me to make that call or for me to make that direction when I’m not there and I’m not participating. That’s why we have supervision."

Asked exactly when he became aware, Parkinson said it was the night of Jan. 22 while he was at a private residence welcoming the new director of the Women's Shelter.

"That’s the first I’d heard the name Holland, and been aware of it," he said.

That contradicts information given to The Tribune in August 2017, when questions from The Tribune about Holland's death were being referred to the County Counsel's Office. In a Aug. 4, 2017, email, County Counsel Rita Neal wrote that Parkinson "was aware that Mr. Holland was in the restraint chair but was unaware of the exact duration of time."

Neal clarified in an email Friday that Parkinson "was made aware Sunday evening of an inmate death. At the time he was notified, he was informed that Mr. Holland had been released from the restraint chair and passed away sometime thereafter. He was unaware of the duration and learned of the duration upon further inquiry and review."

The county has denied Tribune public records requests for Parkinson's and other county officials' communications over that weekend.

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'What we knew and saw'

About 24 hours after Holland's death, the Sheriff's Office issued a news release that made no mention of restraints, claimed Holland was “found unconscious and unresponsive” in his cell and said he was “under the continual care of a physician” at the time of his death.

Video shows deputies watched from outside the cell as he went unconscious. They entered roughly 15 seconds after Holland's arm fell to the floor, exposing his motionless face staring up at the ceiling.

Asked if he stands by the news release, Parkinson said yes.

"But put it into perspective for a second here, less than 24 hours after his had happened, we had an investigation going on which included interviewing a whole bunch of people," he said. "We had people going everywhere. It was designed to be an initial release with what we knew at that point."

He said the statement about Holland's being "found," was "meant (for) nothing more other than to describe the condition when they got to him that he was in.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said in an interview Tuesday that he will "absolutely not" resign or drop out of the race for re-election, saying he didn't know that County Jail inmate Andrew Holland had been in a restraint chair until after Holland died Jan. 22, 2017. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

"When you’re waiting outside and you see what you believe to be lack of movements, change of behavior, and they enter and they find him unconscious, that’s exactly what they did. They found him unconscious," Parkinson said.

In regards to the "continual care" line, Parkinson said it was meant "similar to when you’re going to the hospital."

"Whether a nurse or a doctor is standing there the entire time, they have protocols they have to follow. And that’s what we were describing, a protocol," he said. "I imagine there was probably a clearer way to try to define what that was, but again, it was a description of what we knew and saw."

Parkinson said the release made no mention of Holland's time in restraints because "it was simply the facts we were reporting at the moment."

Asked if there was any effort to keep the public from learning the circumstances around Holland's death, as has been alleged by Holland's family and others, Parkinson said "absolutely not."

He cited the installation of 150 cameras in the jail under his watch and a public invitation he made to the FBI to investigate Holland's death on April 13, 2017, the same day Parkinson held a news conference to announce another inmate's in-custody death.

Though Parkinson asked the FBI to investigate, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Office says the agency is not investigating the jail in response to Parkinson’s request, and members of Holland's family say they were interviewed by the FBI in March 2017.

'Culture change'?

Since Holland's death, the county has destroyed and banned restraint chairs. It's also changed policies to restrict the time inmates can remain in other types of restraints and in isolation cells.

But asked if there's a need for a change in culture among jail staff — critics have called Holland's treatment "cruel" — Parkinson defended his staff, about two-thirds of which he said he's hired.

"They’re very caring. I think they’re very sympathetic to the situation (inmates) have," he said. "It’s a very difficult job at times. Any obvious callous improper behavior is addressable and won’t be tolerated."

The Sheriff's Office says its received "death threats" since the release of The Tribune video, in which one deputy is seen laughing while Cal Fire performs CPR on Holland.

A screenshot from SLO County Jail footage showing the death of Andrew Holland. Fountain, Matt - SLO SanLuisObispo

Parkinson spoke at length about deputies in the video and the "devastating" effect its release has had on them. According to Parkinson, who's since interviewed them, one was falling ill after watching a medical procedure requiring the injection of a large needle into Holland's leg bone. The deputy feeling sick, with his back to the camera, couldn't leave the cell, he said.

Parkinson said the deputy told the one in front of him that he was going to faint and the other responded that he was feeling the same way.

"He turned in what he described as in a nervous way and he smiled at him," Parkinson said. "Nobody described it as laughing even though it certainly could be described in many different ways."

'Committed to this job'

Despite calls for his resignation from protesters or calls for him to drop out of his bid for re-election this June from San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, Parkinson said he isn't going anywhere.

"Absolutely not," he said in response Tuesday.

"I made a promise to the people of this county. I made a promise to the employees. I have a commitment to this community, and I plan to continue that commitment," Parkinson said. "To walk away when something bad happens is poor leadership."

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @mattfountain1