Credit: (Illustration by Chris Allen, VOICE)

S.E. Williams

Hardly a week goes by in the Inland Empire lately without a new report of an inmate death in either Riverside or San Bernardino County. As recently reported by the IE Voice on August 15, 2022, An arrest should not be a death sentence.

Whether the cause of death is unknown pending investigation with little if any information ever disclosed because such investigations tend to linger on; or someone dies at the hands of a fellow incarcerated person; or illness and purportedly questionable healthcare or lack there of; or, failure to adhere to safety protocols during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic; or,  more recently, fentanyl overdoses, the truth is the often minor violations that lead to incarceration can be a death sentence not only here in the Inland Empire but across the state. 

In February, the California State Auditor released a blistering report on the  high numbers of jail deaths in San Diego County and in counties across the state.

“Given that the annual number of incarcerated individuals’ deaths in county jails across the state increased from 130 in 2006 to 156 in 2020, improving the statewide standards is essential to ensuring the health and safety of individuals in custody in all counties.” 

The report made it clear:  “The problems we identified with the Sheriff’s Department’s policies are in part the result of statewide corrections standards that are not sufficiently robust.” These standards however, are the minimum and it is left to the discretion of the individual counties to use these standards to create policies for inmate safety and care.  

This might be conceived as malpractice on the part of the state when one considers the attitudes of many of the local sheriffs in California who never miss an opportunity to speak out against anything designed to improve criminal justice or the process of incarceration. 

“In so many communities nationwide, jails act as reception centers for those experiencing poverty, mental health crises, or substance use disorders. Just a few days ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to jails as ‘garbage bins’ for human beings.”

Prison Policy Initiative

State standards are inadequate

So, it should have come as no surprise when state auditors determined, “some of the standards are insufficient for maintaining the safety of incarcerated individuals,” noting in one example how the standards do not explicitly require that mental health professionals be used to perform mental health screenings during the intake process despite the number of individuals with mental health and drug related dependencies that cyle in and out of local jails. 

Another failure in the process could help protect the incarcerated related to safety checks. There is no clear definition of what determines an adequate safety check. State guidelines only require that safety checks be “conducted at least hourly through direct visual observation”. 

The average number of people who have died in jails across the state increased from 130 in 2006 to 156 in 2020 and continue to rise. Were these the deaths of dogs and cats in a local animal shelter people would be apoplectic. It is chilling to think we live in a nation, a state, a county, a community that cares less about the lives of human beings than it does about cats and dogs. Remember, most of the individuals in our jail facilities are awaiting trial because they cannot afford the cost of their bail. 

Problems related to the deaths of incarcerated individuals do not end with their demise. Speaking specifically about San Diego County the auditors noted, “The department’s reviews of in‑custody deaths have been insufficient and have not consistently led to significant corrective action related to preventing deaths.” The same could be the case in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties however getting access to documents detailing these investigations to understand exactly what is happening locally may be challenging. 

In February, the state auditor called on the legislature take action and make meaningful changes to ensure  the safety of individuals held in county jail facilities. We are waiting.

In the meantime, we must come to grips with the reality that locking people up is not the solution to the persistent and debilitating problems of alcohol and drug addiction, mental health frailties and homelessness. 

Put more money in social programs and less in jails. This can help people live rather than incarcerating them and putting their lives in jeopardy.

Of course this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. A longtime champion for civil rights and social justice in all its forms, she is also an advocate for government transparency and committed to ferreting out and exposing government corruption. Over the years Stephanie has reported for other publications in the inland region and Los Angeles and received awards from the California News Publishers Association for her investigative reporting and Ethnic Media Services for her weekly column, Keeping it Real. She also served as a Health Journalism Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at