The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury investigated the death of a 30-year-old Main Jail inmate who committed suicide just 18 hours after his arrest in February 2021and found multiple areas requiring improvement in the intake process that “failed to protect (the inmate).”
Michael Anthony Remijio of Isla Vista was arrested the night before on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant from Ventura County after a welfare check from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department.
Just 18 hours later, he was found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell. While life-saving measures were initiated by deputies and continued while he was transported by American Medical Response ambulance, Remijio was pronounced dead at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
An autopsy report concluded that Remijio’s cause of death was hanging, “other significant conditions” and methamphetamine intoxication.
In mid-July, another inmate in the jail died by suicide, marking the fifth suicide at the jail since April 2018. The grand jury report focused solely on Remijio’s death, however.
“The jury’s investigation revealed that process improvements were needed in the areas of communication between deputies and medical professionals, training in the identification of potential suicidal ideation when it’s not openly stated, the application of ‘urgent need for medical care’ as defined in the Intake Screening Implementation Plan, and the availability of appropriate mental health professionals on a 24/7 basis,” the grand jury report stated.
Sheriff’s deputies noted that Remijio appeared agitated and paranoid during the previous day’s welfare check, believing he was being chased by armed individuals.
He later told deputies that he had taken methamphetamine within the last 24 hours and was withdrawing.
A registered nurse with Wellpath, the Sheriff’s Department’s health-care partner, conducted Remijio’s intake evaluation. According to the report, the evaluation “found no evidence of mental illness or past or present drug use and no need for any special accommodation for mental health reasons.”
According to the report, the RN’s suicide risk intake screening needs to consider the “transporting officer’s impressions about risk.”
“In (Remijio’s) case, it is disputed whether this information was shared as required,” the report said, stating that the transporting officer said the RN had been informed of his paranoid behavior, but the RN denied ever being informed.
“The evidence points to the fact that a significant breakdown in communication occurred at that point,” the report said.
The grand jury acknowledged the challenge the Sheriff’s Department has in identifying mental health or substance abuse issues, and in keeping these inmates safe.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, cited in the report, 41% of inmates in locally run jails have been diagnosed with mental illness, and suicides account for nearly 30% of in-custody deaths.
Locally, the county Department of Behavioral Wellness reported that each year, 60% of inmates in the Main Jail have had past contact with Behavioral Wellness, compared to the 33% national average.
The grand jury also noted the fact that, due to Wellpath’s contract, there are no on-site mental health professionals in the jail between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., which “can allow for urgent medical needs to go untreated in a timely manner.”
Some of the grand jury’s recommendations include establishing and improving joint training with sheriff’s deputies and Wellpath health professionals, proposing around-the-clock coverage by mental health professionals, and reducing the time between identification and initiation of medical and mental health protocols.
“The best defense against errors in judgment affecting inmate safety are targeted processes and procedures, in-depth training, specified communication requirements, and application of lessons learned from any failures that occur,” the report stated.
“Work has already begun in several areas that could help reduce future suicides within the Santa Barbara County jail system. … While significant progress has been made, the 2021 Santa Barbara County Grand Jury believes that further changes and improvements are needed.”
The grand jury has requested responses to its findings and recommendations from the Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, which have 60 days and 90 days to respond, respectively.
Click here for the full grand jury report on suicide in the Santa Barbara County Jail.