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DOJ to investigate jail as county faces another inmate death lawsuit 

As the county got hit with yet another lawsuit in connection with an inmate death, officials announced on Nov. 7 that the U.S. Department of Justice will conduct an independent investigation of mental and medical health care at the SLO County Jail.

A total of 21 inmates have died in the jail since 2000, with 13 of those deaths occurring since the election of current Sheriff Ian Parkinson in 2011. A written statement by the county said the DOJ's investigation is a "civil review" and will not focuses on "a single event" but on the delivery of mental and medical health services in the facility.

click to enlarge ANOTHER INVESTIGATION The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating mental and medical health care services at the SLO County jail. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ANOTHER INVESTIGATION The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating mental and medical health care services at the SLO County jail.

"The investigation will consider all relevant information, particularly the efforts the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Office and the San Luis Obispo Health Agency have undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law," the county's statement said. "If deficiencies are identified during the investigation, the Department of Justice will provide technical assistance promptly, where possible and appropriate."

The announcement came days after the family of one of the inmates, Russell Hammer, filed a lawsuit against the county claiming that negligent medical and mental health care cause the 62-year-old's death in November of 2017. Five months prior, the county was also sued by the family of Kevin Lee McLaughlin, who died in the jail in April 2017.

Hammer was booked into the jail on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon on Nov. 6, 2017. According to the lawsuit, Hammer was suffering from Parkinson's disease, cellulitis, and several other physical and mental health problems. Hammer was isolated and placed in a solitary cell without his prescribed medications, according to the lawsuit. Hammer's mental condition deteriorated to the point where he began eating his own feces at the command of his auditory hallucinations, the lawsuit states. Hammer was also taken to the county's Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) and seen at French Hospital before being retuned to the jail.

According to a coroner's investigation and autopsy report, Hammer died of a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, due to deep vein thrombosis in his left leg. A medical examiner ruled his death as natural, but the lawsuit alleges that Hammer's death was the result of neglect and mistreatment.

San Francisco Attorney Paula Canny filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hammer's wife. Canny also represented the family of Andrew Holland, a schizophrenic inmate who died of a blood clot after being strapped into a restraint chair for nearly two days in early 2017. The county paid a $5 million settlement to Holland's family in connection with the death, which like Hammer's, was ruled accidental.

Hammer's wife is seeking an unspecified amount of damages. She previously filed three administrative claims against the county related to her husband's death, all of which were rejected. County Counsel Rita Neal said the county had not been served with the complaint as of Nov. 7, but said the county's position had not changed and that it would "vigorously defend" its employees and officials.

In addition to the DOJ's investigation, the FBI is continuing its own investigation of possible civil rights abuses at the jail in connection with Holland's death.

In the county's statement, Parkinson said he welcomed the DOJ's investigation and "any assistance and guidance to further improve areas identified by the Department of Justice."

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