Inmates are dying at record numbers in California jails and officials are having a difficult time explaining why and how to stop it. Precautionary measures have been put into place, such as programs to prevent in-custody jail deaths, adding staff members to monitor deaths, and reporting deaths in a timely manner. None of these actions is working, or having minimal effect, and the in-custody deaths keep occurring, reports Calmatters.

In 2023 alone there were 45 deaths, some were explained as drug overdoses, suicide, homicide, and hypothermia, and some cases were not yet explained, says LA Times. Surprisingly, the incarcerated population is down since the pandemic, says the article. The number of in-custody deaths is, in part, speculation because there isn’t a “systemic data collection,” reports the LA Times. So, even if officials are working on preventing in-custody deaths, accurate data on the deaths themselves is missing.

In the 57 jail systems in California run by the sheriff’s office, more people have died in a five year span than ever before, with 2022 hitting a record high of 215 deaths. It would seem logical to blame the surge of deaths on COVID19, however, that’s not the case; suicide, drug overdose, and natural causes are the leading causes of death in jails.

Fentanyl overdoses have become the leading drug related death in jails, reported The Sacramento Bee. California’s overdose death rates rose to record highs in 2023 with a rate of 62 per 100,000 prisoners dying, and 43 dead in 2022 alone. Even with systems put into place for drug detection, it’s still getting into the jails, says Calmatters, who reported cases of drug smuggling on a person’s body and handwritten letters laced with fentanyl.


Deaths in Jail – Are They Really Due to Natural Causes?

There’s been debates about the cases of deaths due to natural causes, which has been called a catch-all term for unexplained deaths. California jails have been reported as medically negligent, environmentally unsafe, and uncaring. In one case, Richard Matus, 29, had been waiting for his trial when he was found dead in his cell of a fentanyl overdose. Officials at the jail claim this is an open and shut case, but according to journal entries made by Matus only days before, he asked for medical attention and received none. Matus’ family claim he never used any drug besides marijuana before entering jail and filed a wrongful death claim in 2022. With five other fentanyl related deaths at the same jail (2022), officials say it’s a new record. Education about the drug and informational waivers for inmates to sign is still not stopping the drug from making its way into the jail system.

There is a deep lack of confidence in the California Board of State and Community Corrections, says Calmatters, reporting that officials from other organizations find their work ineffective. However, as much efficiency the Board may lack, there also may not be enough local participation from places like the department of behavioral health, who handle matters of crisis as well, says the article. Either way, the in-custody death rates keep rising.


Did Your Loved One Suspiciously Die in a California Jail?

It’s harrowing to lose a loved one, especially when you are not sure the exact cause of death when it occurred in jail. It is up to the jail system to keep our inmates safe—this means getting them the medical attention they require, preventing illness from spreading and having zero tolerance for abuse from guards and other inmates. If you suspect that your loved one died in jail due to some kind of negligence, please contact our civil rights attorneys now. We want to help bring justice to your loved one and help stop this from occurring again.