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Criminal Justice

18 People Died In Riverside County Jails Last Year. Advocates Urge State Action

The exterior of a jail has the word "JAIL" carved into a sign outside an empty courtyard expanse. The block walls have stripes and a row of first-floor windows.
The Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta is one of several jail facilities in Riverside County.
(Courtesy Riverside County Sheriff)
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Families were notified days after a loved one’s death while in jail. An incarcerated person was given “puzzle books” as mental health treatment. Correctional officers smuggle in drugs as jail overdoses climb.

These are some of the jarring allegations made in a Feb. 7 letter to the state board that oversees jails and juvenile detention facilities alleging dangerous conditions inside Riverside County jails.

Eighteen people died in the jails in 2022 — the most in at least 15 years, stated the letter, which was written by the ACLU of Southern California and two community groups.

About those deaths

The letter alleges drug overdoses in jails are increasing — five of last year’s deaths were due to fentanyl overdoses — and incarcerated people are not getting the medical and mental health care they need.

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“This body has never recognized the near constant loss of life in Riverside County jails in the last year,” Avalon Edwards, a policy associate with the Riverside-based nonprofit Starting Over, Inc, told the Board of State and Community Corrections at its meeting Thursday. Starting Over, Inc. is one of the letter’s signatories.

The BSCC must conduct “thorough unannounced facilities inspections and a review of … policies that are systematically endangering the lives of incarcerated people,” the letter said.

It said inspection teams must focus on a number of issues, including “how drugs are entering Riverside facilities” and whether jail staff “are held to the same level of scrutiny for bringing in contraband as visitors and incarcerated people.”

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, did not respond to a request for comment.

[H]e got access to fentanyl inside within six days.
— Kathy, the mother of a man who died in a Riverside County jail

A plea for state intervention

Edwards said the community has been pleading for years for state intervention.

“We have already lost two more lives to the Riverside County jail system in 2023,” Edwards told the board.

The Riverside County Jail System
  • Riverside County has five jail facilities that currently hold around 4,000 people — about one-quarter the size of the Los Angeles County jail system.

  • The Riverside County Sheriff's Department runs the jails.

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The county is already under a federal consent decree governing how it provides medical and mental health care in the jails. A judge imposed the decree after the Prison Law Office sued the sheriff’s department in 2013 over similar conditions inside the jails. As part of the settlement agreement in that case, the department “was forced to implement changes to ensure proper access to healthcare,” according to the letter sent to the BSCC.

It also said the sheriff’s department “largely failed to implement” operational changes recommended over the years by civilian grand juries.

“We write to BSCC after exhausting all other routes to obtain basic standards of accountability and humane treatment for incarcerated people in Riverside County,” the letter stated.

In 2021, the ACLU of Southern California, Starting Over, Inc., and other groups asked the California Department of Justice to investigate the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s management of the jails.

In response to our request for comment on that request, the California Attorney General's office said: "To protect its integrity, we’re unable to comment on a potential or ongoing investigation.” 

Personal stories

At Thursday’s BSCC meeting, several people detailed their experience of losing a loved one who was incarcerated in Riverside County jails.

A woman who identified herself as Kathy said her son died last year from a drug overdose in the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center.

“My son was only in custody for six days and died two days after his arraignment,” she said. “He appeared to look fine in court. He didn't have any money or access to any money. So he got access to fentanyl inside within six days.”

Kathy said her son died 10 days after the overdose death of another incarcerated person in the same housing pod.

“Are we doing unannounced inspections? Have we? Are we doing them often?” asked board member Scott Budnick.

Board Chair Linda Penner responded that she doesn’t know whether any unannounced inspections are currently taking place in Riverside County.

The board was established in 2012; more than half of the 13 seats on the panel are reserved for law enforcement and detention facility personnel.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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