3 Sacramento County Jail inmates have died in the past month and a half. What’s going on?

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office says more oversight is needed for the county’s Adult Correctional Health, which runs the medical care in jails.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Three inmates at the Sacramento County Main Jail have died within the past month and a half prompting some to ask what’s going on.

On May 5, 45-year-old Lope Tolosa was found unresponsive by himself in an area housing inmates detoxifying from substances. He’d been in custody for about three days.

Less than a week later – on May 12 – 55-year-old David Barefield died during the fingerprinting process while being booked. This was shortly after the medical staff cleared him for incarceration.

And on June 8, K Street shooting suspect Smiley Martin, 29, was found unresponsive in his cell.

Sheriff’s office spokesperson Sgt. Amar Gandhi says there’s nothing to indicate suicide or criminal intent played any role in these deaths.

“Medical care seems to be the number one issue right now, of everything going on in our facilities, and – unfortunately – it’s something that we have zero sphere of control over,” Gandhi said.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office oversees the county’s two jails, but Sacramento County Adult Correctional Health (ACH) – separate from the sheriff’s office – oversees all medical care within those jails.

“They handle everything from not only just the care, administering of medication, but also the hiring, the selection, the background, the vetting of every Adult Correctional Health employee that comes in there,” Gandhi said.

Understaffing within ACH means long wait times during the booking process, Gandhi said, since every arrestee who comes to the jail has to be medically cleared before being incarcerated and the officer who arrested the suspect has to remain with them until they’re medically cleared.

“If your patrol officer is in our jail for three to four hours of that 10 hour shift, that means they’re not on the street, they’re not responding to your call,” Gandhi said.

Kim Nava, a spokesperson for Sacramento County, tells ABC10 the jail has vacancies for one physician, three registered nurses, 10 licensed vocational nurses, two supervising RNs and two medical assistants. The county is actively recruiting for those positions.

Gandhi says the sheriff’s office wants to see ACH improve its operations, for the sake of the public and the inmates.

“It’s a jail, but we don’t want to add any additional stress or anguish to them,” Gandhi said. “Right now, there’s a very clear gap in the medical care required and what’s being given.”

Back in 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of incarcerated people in Sacramento County’s jails. They claimed conditions at the jail did not meet minimum standards under the U.S. Constitution, as well as federal and state disability laws.

As a result, in 2020, the county agreed to enter into something called a consent decree, which is akin to a legally binding performance improvement plan.

The agreement outlines steps the county must take to improve its mental health and medical care, suicide prevention efforts among inmates and use of solitary confinement, among other issues. The county also agreed reducing the jail population would help achieve compliance.

Reports monitoring the county’s progress are due every six months, with the next one coming in July.

Wanda Bertram is spokesperson for Prison Policy Initiative, a national organization conducting research on issues surrounding mass incarceration.

“When there’s a rash of deaths, I think that is a reason for oversight officials to get very deeply involved,” she said.

Nationwide, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, jail and prisons deaths are trending upward, especially those related to intoxicated inmates.

“Throughout the country, we see failures to deal – in particular – with folks who are the in the middle of a substance use crisis,” Bertram said. “Only 54% of jails in the country, for instance, provide any kind of medication for withdrawal.”

Understaffed medical departments can be helped by reducing prison and jail populations, she said.

“We would argue that the real cause of these needless deaths is over-incarceration and counties should be investing in community solutions,” Bertram said.

Gandhi pointed out the sheriff’s office has multiple layers of oversight and says there’s not a lot for the medical staff.

The Community Review Commission, independent Inspector General and District Attorney’s Office can all investigate allegations of misconduct by sheriff’s office employees. ACH staff aren’t subject to those.

Last year, six people with ACH were accused of smuggling drugs and escape tools – including methamphetamine, cocaine and security drill bits – into the Sacramento County Main Jail. Gandhi says while the department has not discovered evidence of any additional ACH staff doing this, he also hasn’t seen any changes or safeguards put in place since then.

“There’s nothing we can implement; it’s beyond our sphere of control,” Gandhi said. “We can only control sheriff’s office employees. We can control access to the facilities to some extent, but we can’t deny a health worker coming in who’s been assigned by Adult Correctional Health to provide healthcare for these inmates.”

Sacramento County contracts with 11 jail medical service providers, Nava said. Those contracts are approved by the county Board of Supervisors, which ultimately oversees the Department of Health Services, which houses ACH.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.