Grand Jury Investigates Four Santa Barbara Jail Deaths

Finds ‘Serious Errors’ by Custody Staff in Three Cases

Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Four jail inmate deaths in 2019 are the subject of a new Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report that found lapses in protocol and “serious errors” by staff during three of the incidents. Two of the deaths were suicides.

Joseph Rose already had a long history of severe mental illness when he was arrested for burglary and booked in jail in April 2018. His condition worsened during the 14 months he waited for his case to be heard. In June 2019, he committed suicide.

Joseph Rose, 48, was booked at the County Jail on April 10, 2018, on burglary charges. Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had a long history of “suicidal ideations,” the Grand Jury said, languished in custody for 14 months while his court date was delayed 25 times. Other inmates accused him of being a child molester, which he denied, and fights left him with a broken nose and broken eye sockets. Rose threatened suicide unless he was housed in a cell by himself. Before he could be moved, he hung himself with his T-shirt on June 25, 2019.

The Grand Jury found that Rose’s threats of suicide were not reported to a jail supervisor and he was not promptly moved to a safety cell where he could be monitored. There was also a “significant date inaccuracy in both the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s letter [to the Grand Jury] and the Coroner’s Report, giving the false impression that his incarceration was two months rather than fourteen months,” the Jury stated. 

Isaiah Johnson, 23, was arrested on October 19, 2019, on outstanding warrants for burglary and failure to appear in court. “The records provided to the Jury did not show whether his previous booking records were reviewed,” the report said. “A thorough review of prior booking assessments would have revealed a history of drug use and suicidal ideations.” On October 23, Johnson complained about withdrawal symptoms. That same day, he was observed exhibiting “bizarre behavior.” On October 31, he committed suicide in his cell by wrapping a phone cord around his neck and dropping his feet out from under his body. 

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The Grand Jury found Johnson did not receive treatment upon his first complaints of withdrawals and was housed in a cell with a long-corded, wall-mounted telephone that was not appropriate for someone in the throes of mental distress. The Jury noted that while Johnson had refused initial treatment attempts, no referral to a psychiatrist was made.

The third inmate death in 2019 involved a man who had a long history of diabetes and heart problems. At the time of his arrest he was unable to walk. The Grand Jury said he should have never been booked in jail and should instead have been admitted to Cottage Hospital. He died of cardiac arrest on April 12. Two times that day, as his condition deteriorated and nurses offered care, the jail’s on-call doctor couldn’t be reached, the Jury noted. In the fourth death, the Jury found “no evidence of mistreatment or negligence by any member of the custody staff.” 

Last year, the Grand Jury investigated the 2018 suicide of jail inmate Alexander Braid. It accused the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, of obstructing its work and withholding information. The Sheriff’s Office has 60 days to respond to the latest report.

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