An incarcerated individual died in their cell at the underground Marin County Jail last week. It’s the third in-custody death since August, indicating an unusual spike.
In the 10-year period from 2013 through 2022, five incarcerated people died—four by suicide and one from Covid. Of note, no in-custody deaths took place during the five years from 2016 through 2020.
Community activists are expressing concern about the sudden rise in the number of deaths since late summer. However, the Marin County’s Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, does not believe the increase signifies a trend.
“There does not appear to be any relationship with the three in-custody deaths,” Sgt. Adam Schermerhorn of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said. “It seems to be more of a coincidence than any policy or procedural changes that occurred in the last six months.”
The three deaths include two suicides last year. While the cause of death and identity of the incarcerated person who died last week has not been released, some information about the circumstances of the death was provided.
On Jan. 25, a deputy performing a routine check of jail cells found a person in need of medical care at about 5:45am, according to a press release issued by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies performed life saving measures until the San Rafael Fire Department arrived and continued those efforts. But at 5:56am, the person was pronounced deceased.
The Novato Police Department is investigating the incident. The agency also conducted the independent investigation into the October death of a man, 21, found hanging in his cell at the Marin County Jail. He was awaiting trial.
In August, a deputy discovered a 36-year-old man hanging in his jail cell, which was “jointly occupied” by another incarcerated person, according to information released by the sheriff’s office. The man, who was awaiting arraignment, died in the hospital three days later. The San Rafael Police Department investigated the death.
Schermerhorn said the Marin County Sheriff’s Office also conducts internal investigations into in-custody deaths to determine if any policies were violated and whether the policies and procedures in place are adequate.
“The jail is providing the same or a higher level of care than legally required,” Schermerhorn said. “The mental health staff is there 24/7—usually one person after 11pm and oftentimes two during the day.”
In addition, when a person in custody threatens to harm themselves or poses an immediate danger, they are placed in the jail’s safety cell, essentially a padded room. The staff checks the safety cell every 15 minutes.
Frank Shinneman, a community activist who keeps his eye on law enforcement in Marin, believes the three recent in-custody deaths, along with a 2021 death attributed to Covid, prove that the sheriff’s office must take corrective action.
“These three hangings—how did the staff not know that these people were suicidal?” Shinneman asked. “A man died of Covid. Who let him into the jail and didn’t notice that he was so sick? I’m angry at the lack of responsibility.”
Another activist, Tara Evans, is also alarmed. Evans is a member of the AB 1185 Community Outreach Working Group, a volunteer committee appointed by the Marin County Board of Supervisors to develop recommendations for civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office. In June, the supervisors agreed to move forward with one of the oversight plans presented by the working group, with minor staff changes. Seven months later, and still no civilian oversight.
“How many more deaths will it take for the Board of Supervisors, Assemblymember Damon Connolly and Sen. Mike McGuire to actively shine a light on Marin’s problem of jail suicide?” Evans asked. “Caring for those in custody means ongoing identification of high-priority needs, developing clear standards to measure outcomes and the implementation of effective sheriff’s oversight.”