Deaths, 'self-inflicted violence' up in LA County jails

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It's shaping up to be a bad year for deaths inside Los Angeles County jails: 10 people died from natural causes through March 24, county Inspector General Max Huntsman said Thursday. 

"There were a lot of deaths at the beginning of the year," Huntsman told the new Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, which had requested the numbers. "If they continue at this rate, we will about double the rate of deaths from last year."

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department operates the sprawling jail system, which houses more than 18,000 inmates on any given day.

In 2016, 21 jail inmates died from natural causes.

Deaths from "natural causes" include people who may have experienced a drug overdose on the streets then died of complications later inside jail, said Huntsman.

He could not give a definitive answer on why the number of deaths might be up.

There’s been one suicide so far this year, he said. Last year, there were three.

In-Custody Deaths and Suicides

  • 2012: 21 Deaths, 4 Suicides
  • 2013: 24 Deaths, 10 Suicides
  • 2014: 27 Deaths, 6 Suicides
  • 2015: 21 Deaths, 1 Suicide
  • 2016: 21 Deaths, 3 Suicides
  • 2017: 10 Deaths, 1 Suicide (through March 24)

Meanwhile, more jail inmates appear to be harming themselves.

Two hundred thirty-seven inmates engaged in "self-directed violence" through March 24th. This category can include everything from a suicide attempt to "superficial cutting or head banging," according to the report.

In all of 2016, 649 inmates physically hurt themselves, Huntsman said.

"There’s a really big number of people who’ve committed self-directed violence," he said. "You have to dig a little deeper to learn how many of those might be an indicator of negative conditions or of people who have a mental illness that is not getting addressed properly."

More mentally ill people are ending up inside the jails than in previous years, according to Huntsman.

A mental health department review found actual suicide attempts are down this year, he said, while adding that the numbers need more study.

"The lumping up of all self-directed violence under one category is a way of watering down a crisis," said Mark Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now, a jail watchdog group. "Today what we are seeing is that there is an ongoing crisis of suicidality inside of the county jails."

The jails remain under a 2015 federal settlement agreement that mandates better mental health care.

Acts of Self-Directed Violence

  • 2012: 271 acts of self-directed violence
  • 2013: 358 acts of self-directed violence
  • 2014: 501 acts of self-directed violence
  • 2015: 568 acts of self-directed violence
  • 2016: 649 acts of self-directed violence
  • 2017: 237 acts of self-directed violence (through March 24)


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