Some died from drugs. Others did not receive the mental-health or medical care they needed.
In case after case, family members of people who died in San Diego County jails are left with questions about what happened.
Even months and years after the fact, they still don’t know basic details surrounding the deaths of their sons and daughters and husbands.
“From Day One, getting information out of the Sheriff’s Department has been a problem,” said A.C. Mills, whose son Kevin died while being held at the Men’s Central Jail downtown in 2020. “I was stonewalled from the time I began talking to them.”
Conditions in San Diego County jails have received increasing scrutiny as the number of deaths reached record highs in recent years — 18 in 2021 and then 20 in 2022.
Relatives of incarcerated people who died have begun banding together, trying to wield their collective authority to force the department to respond more clearly to questions about specific cases and to adopt targeted policies to protect men and women behind bars.
They requested an in-person meeting with Sheriff Kelly Martinez to discuss their concerns, but the newly sworn-in law enforcement official has so far refused to meet with them as a group.
More than a dozen community activists and loved ones of people who have died in sheriff’s custody plan to rally outside the John F. Duffy Administrative Center in Kearny Mesa on Wednesday to try to convince Martinez to sit down with them.
“This isn’t a meeting of complaints; it’s designed to be a reform influencer,” said Yusef Miller of the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, which coordinated the planned demonstration.
“There are several family members who lost their loved one due to a breakdown in mental health policies and procedures,” Miller said in a telephone interview, “and they will speak as a unit.”
Department officials said Martinez is committed to helping the families understand what happened to their loved ones. The sheriff also offered to speak to relatives privately and noted that each family has a “liaison” to guide them through the justice system, the department said.
“She would like to meet with them individually to provide them with the respect they each deserve,” the department wrote to Miller in a statement that was also provided to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
“She does not believe a meeting such as the one you have proposed is conducive to a compassionate and respectful conversation,” the statement adds.
Miller said the families want to meet collectively to support one another during what would be a difficult conversation. Instead, the sheriff is employing a “divide-and-conquest” strategy, he said.
“When they are talking about something so close to the vest they get emotional, but together they find the strength to tackle the business in order to get the work done so that no other family experiences what they have experienced,” he said.
Mills blames the Sheriff’s Department for telling him that his son died from natural causes. Later, he said, he learned that his son Kevin did not receive medication for his mental illness even though he had been found incompetent to stand trial.
“The judge said this man should be on his antipsychotic medicine,” Mills said. “They knew if he didn’t get it, it could be detrimental to his life.”
The father also said the department has withheld surveillance footage from inside the jail, evidence that might show more clearly what happened to Mills before he was found unconscious in his cell.
“It’s just a host of things they did,” Mills said.
Sundee Weddle also plans to attend the demonstration outside the Sheriff’s Department headquarters.
She said she has never been satisfied with the department’s response to the death of her son, 22-year-old Saxon Rodriguez of Chula Vista, who died at the Central Jail from a drug overdose in July 2021.
Weddle said she wants to know why Martinez rejected a recommendation from the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board to screen employees whenever they enter a county jail as a way to keep drugs out of those facilities.
She also wants to know how many inmates are administering naloxone since sheriff’s officials made it more widely available in jails. The life-saving medicine can quickly reverse the effects of fentanyl and other opioid overdoses.
“I can’t help but wonder if the naloxone had been available to inmates when Saxon was in custody would he still be alive,” she said. “I often wonder about where the drugs came from that killed him. Someone knows, but I feel I’ll never get that information.”
Paloma Serna, whose daughter died at the Las Colinas women’s jail in Santee in 2019, plans to address the group via the internet because she cannot be in San Diego this week.
She wants to know why the Sheriff’s Department allowed Elisa Serna to remain unconscious and untended on the floor of her cell even after a deputy and nurse watched her strike her head as she collapsed.
“My daughter’s death was neglected,” Serna said.
District Attorney Summer Stephan filed criminal charges against a jail nurse and doctor in the Serna case but has not prosecuted any sworn deputies.
Paloma Serna said other jail employees should be held accountable for what happened to her daughter.
“That is what we all want,” Serna said. “This is how they can clean house.”