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When Someone Dies in An Orange County Jail, Who’s Culpable?

Advocates say Anthony Aceves’s death conforms with long-standing issues in the second-largest jail system in California.

Theo Lacy jail, Orange County, California
888bailbond/Flickr Creative Commons

On May 23, Anthony Aceves died while he was incarcerated in Orange County, California. Soon after, the sheriff’s department notified his family. But since then, Aceves’s family has received little information about the circumstances of his death.

“One of the main concerns that the family has is, what do they have to hide?” Daisy Ramirez of ACLU of Southern California told The Appeal last month. “The family will be burying Anthony … and they have no idea what the manner of death was. They have no idea what the cause of death was. And it’s been over a month now.”

Aceves’s mother, Diana Alvarez, has gone to multiple Board of Supervisors meetings to demand more details about her son’s death, with little success. Aceves’s funeral was on June 28, and the family still has many unanswered questions. Alvarez filed a wrongful death claim in June against the county and the sheriff’s department.

Aceves, who had schizophrenia, was detained in April because he missed a meeting with his probation officer. He had been on probation for battery on an officer. People incarcerated on probation violations, many of which are not crimes, make up 24 percent of California’s prison population, according to a study released last month by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Advocates say Aceves’s death conforms with long-standing issues in the sheriff’s department and prosecutor’s office in Orange County, including a lack of transparency, a lack of proper care for people with mental illnesses in its jails, and a conflict of interest when the district attorney’s office investigates deaths in the county’s jails.

“The Orange County district attorney’s office has consistently been among the least transparent government agencies in the country,” Brendan Hamme of ACLU of Southern California told The Appeal. “Government agencies can’t operate like a black box.”

The sheriff’s department declined to comment on details regarding Aceves’s incarceration and his death, including any information on the coroner’s report. In a statement sent by email, the office said:  “Anthony Aceves was located unresponsive in his bed in the morning of 5/23 at the Theo Lacy Facility. He was transported to the hospital and pronounced deceased. There were no obvious signs of trauma on his body.”

The district attorney’s office did not respond to specific questions about its involvement in Aceves’s case.

In June 2017, the ACLU published a report on the conditions in the Orange County jails, which constitute the second largest jail system in California. The report found that violence against detainees by jail officials is rampant, as is violence between detainees instigated by guards. In addition, the ACLU reported that Orange County deputies have often ignored calls for medical attention by detainees if they didn’t think it was serious. There is often a delay in getting detainees medical care.

Ramirez, a co-author of the ACLU report, says many of those issues still exist—including a lack of decent care for people with mental illnesses.

“One of the other issues that we’re focused on is lack of access to timely and adequate medical and mental healthcare. We have a lot of individuals with chronic medical needs that are not being treated,” Ramirez told The Appeal. She said that when people are experiencing a mental health crisis, deputies often use excessive force against them. And people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are sometimes held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

Accusations of negligent medical care have plagued the sheriff’s department and its jails for several years. In June 2018, an Orange County grand jury determined that nearly half of the jail’s in-custody deaths may have been preventable. The study found that lack of proper medical care and attention—including not diagnosing serious mental illnesses, not accurately assessing health needs at intake, and not referring someone to medical staff quickly enough—was most likely a factor in the high number of deaths. (In March, Jessica Pishko wrote about the nationwide problem of jail deaths and the responsibilities of sheriffs for the welfare of people in their custody.)

Within 10 days of an in-custody death, the sheriff’s department is required by law to send a report to the state attorney general’s office. The Orange County DA’s office investigates allegations of criminal wrongdoing related to in-custody deaths. But many advocates believe that this process involves an inherent conflict of interest.

“It’s unclear to me that the DA’s office should be running the investigation into in-custody deaths when they work so closely with the sheriff’s office, ” Somil Trivedi of the ACLU’s national office said. The recent informant scandal within the county, Trivedi said, especially casts doubt on the working relationship between the DA’s office and the sheriff’s department.

For three decades, the Orange County sheriff’s department allegedly managed a jailhouse informant operation and some lawyers and advocates accuse the DA’s office of being complicit. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, Orange County denied that such a program existed. Tony Rackauckas, who was DA until January, has denied that he or anyone in his office participated in the informant program. And the current DA, Todd Spitzer, is conducting an investigation into the scandal. The U.S. Department of Justice and the county sheriff’s department are also investigating.

In the context of such turmoil, Trivedi and Ramirez believe that an independent group should be responsible for conducting investigations of in-custody deaths instead of the DA’s office. Between 2010 and 2018, 63 people have died in the county’s jails. And in that time, the DA’s office has yet to find a law enforcement officer culpable for any of them.

With the lack of transparency surrounding Aceves’s death, his family refuses to stop their fight for answers and justice.

“I made [Anthony] a promise when I saw him … at the mortuary that we’re not going to let his death be in vain,” his uncle, Arthur Alvarez, told The Appeal by phone.

“That we’re hopefully going to solve some problems here in the county. Enough is enough. … We’re going to continue to fight for people with mental illness and who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Anthony.”