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Once again, San Diego County and sheriff sued for wrongful death of mentally ill prisoner

San Diego Union-Tribune - 2/27/2024

San Diego County, its sheriff and several health care contractors have been sued — yet again — by family members of a person who died in county jail.

According to the latest legal complaint, Sheriff's Department officials were well aware that Matthew Settles had a long history of mental illness but failed to prevent him from taking his own life while being held in the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa.

The litany of allegations is consistent with case after case leveled against Sheriff Kelly Martinez and her predecessor, Bill Gore.

Specifically, the Sheriff's Department placed Settles in isolation, overlooked his psychiatric care, did not make sure he took his prescribed medication and negligently allowed him to take his own life, the lawsuit says.

"No provider alerted correctional staff that Matthew needed to be moved out of segregation," the lawsuit filed last week in San Diego federal court alleges. "Matthew Settles died after being neglected in extreme isolation for four weeks."

Neither the county nor the Sheriff's Department would comment on the litigation.

"We have not yet had the opportunity to review the attached suit," sheriff's spokesperson Lt. David LaDieu said by email. "Even still, this is related to ongoing litigation, we will not be making a comment at this time."

The lawsuit also named as defendants two contract health care providers, two mental health clinicians, a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse who worked in San Diego County jails.

The Settles complaint is the latest in a growing number of lawsuits against the county and its Sheriff's Department. The agency has been sued repeatedly for what families say were their loved ones' wrongful deaths and accused of excessive use of force by deputies.

Over the past five-plus years, San Diego County taxpayers have paid out more than $60 million in jury awards and legal settlements related to misconduct by sheriff's deputies.

Settles, who was 54, was found in medical distress inside his cell on Aug. 16, 2022, during a routine security check by deputies, according to a department news release issued at the time. They immediately initiated medical aid and called 911, the department said.

"Paramedics arrived and provided additional life-saving measures," that news release said. "Despite the efforts of deputies, jail medical staff and paramedics, the man did not survive."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Settles' mother, Brenda, elaborates on what happened.

According to the 69-page complaint, the Sheriff's Department was aware that Settles had already been placed into permanent conservatorship back in 2021. Settles was designated gravely disabled and unable to care for himself or make his own medical decisions, the lawsuit noted.

"Matthew refused psychiatric medication and refused care," the complaint says.

He managed to hang himself inside his cell despite his known history of mental illness, including once jumping in front of a trolley and once getting mauled after climbing into the bear enclosure at the San Diego Zoo, the complaint said.

His behavior had escalated after Settles was taken in custody for hitting a security guard at a psychiatric hospital, the lawsuit said.

"Without effective and robust treatment for his schizoaffective disorder, Matthew engaged in repetitive and substantial self-injurious behavior while he was incarcerated," it says.

His family's lawsuit also recounts the Sheriff's Department's history of failing to implement recommendations from outside experts hired by the county.

It singles out separate findings from Disability Rights California and the work of consultant Lindsay Hayes, a jail suicide-prevention expert the county asked to assess its practices.

Hayes suggested that department officials do more to protect mentally ill people taken into custody.

"In a report issued in 2018, Hayes repeatedly warned the Sheriff's Department about the adverse effects of administrative segregation on seriously ill inmates," the suit said.

Grace Jun, one of the lawyers representing the Settles family, said the department was specifically warned in that report that severely ill psychiatric patients in administrative segregation were likely to attempt suicide.

"Ignoring the advice of its own consultant, the Sheriff's Department placed Mr. Settles in segregation for weeks, causing him to seriously deteriorate and die," Jun said.

The federal lawsuit also repeatedly cites reporting from The San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been examining jail deaths in county jails for years. More specifically, the newspaper found that San Diego had the highest mortality rate among California's largest county jail systems.

"In response to the Union-Tribune's series Dying Behind Bars, Sheriff Gore wrote an op-ed that blamed the number of in-custody deaths on the inmates," the lawsuit said.

It also noted that a follow-up news story confirmed the Union-Tribune's original reporting and referenced a state audit issued in 2022 that similarly found jails in San Diego County were more dangerous than those in other large counties.

"Defendants are aware of a persistent and recurring pattern of preventable deaths and serious injuries caused by the Sheriff's Department's misconduct, apathy and neglect," the lawsuit says.

Public records show the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, which reviews Sheriff's and Probation department practices, has dozens of death investigations outstanding.

The Sheriff's Department is often slow to provide basic information to the independent panel. CLERB executive officer Paul Parker said his office has received only 15 homicide files from the 33 cases that remain outstanding.

"This leaves 18 other investigations where we cannot provide to families, the public or the media an estimated completion date of staff's investigation and subsequent presentation to CLERB," he said Monday.

"Five of the 18 deaths occurred in 2022, which is way too long for family members to wait for answers," Parker added.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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