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California County Facing Legal Action For Custody Deaths

Riverside County, Ca., is facing legal action after a 21-year-old woman committed suicide while in jail custody. A lawsuit filed by the woman's family claims that jail staff repeatedly ignored signs that she was a serious risk to her own safety, Reason reports. Alicia Upton was arrested on April 19, 2022 on suspicion of threatening to stab another woman. According to the lawsuit, she expressed suicidal thoughts during a screening and said "I always kinda wanted to die." Upton's mental health was rated "severe" and she was placed in a "safety cell," a cell made for suicidal inmates. Despite her clear mental health distress, Upton was removed from the safety cell and put into another jail cell without safety features.  The cell "was known to pose risk of death [and] injury to suicidal inmates by virtue of the hazards contained in the cell," according to the lawsuit. "These hazards included bed sheets which were known to be used as ligatures by suicidal inmates and attachment points for hanging such as the corners of the bunk beds." Less than ten days after entering custody, Upton hanged herself in her cell using the sheets from her bed.

The lawsuit noted that 18 people died while being held in Riverside County jails in 2022, a 15-year high. However, despite the prevalence of in-custody deaths and a class-action lawsuit challenging the health and safety standards for inmates in the jail, officials "deliberately failed to take even modest actions to prevent in-custody deaths at the Riverside County correctional facilities," the suit claims. Things have only gotten worse since Upton's death. By November 2023, 22 people had died in custody, with 12 of those deaths related to incarceration conditions within county jails. The suit alleges that the county hasn't been complying with state laws mandating transparency around in-custody deaths of inmates, including considerable delays in reporting deaths and incorrectly labeling inmates who died as pre-trial detainees as "'sentenced' post-conviction prisoners" in reports to the Justice Department. In fact, in February 2023, the county's alleged misconduct prompted an investigation from the California Department of Justice, which is ongoing.


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