ACLU Lawsuit Demands Records On Mentally IIl People Who Died In Jail Awaiting Transfer To A State Treatment Facility

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SAN FRANCISCO – In one five-year period alone, dozens of people who had been declared incompetent to stand trial because of a serious mental illness, died in California jails – while waiting for a bed at a state treatment facility to become available. 

Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California sued the California Department of State Hospitals (DSH), the agency that had primary responsibility for providing treatment to these individuals so they could eventually return to court to participate in the criminal proceedings against them. DSH has refused to produce records about how these people died, claiming it would violate the privacy of the deceased. DSH officials also claim they don’t track in-custody deaths of people on their wait list. 

However, in response to an ACLU public records request, DSH disclosed that it was aware of 35 people who had died on the wait list between January 2018 and September 2023. Yet the agency refused to provide any further information, such as how they died or how long they had been waiting for treatment at the time of death.  

“The Department of State Hospitals is trying to hide behind privacy laws to insulate itself from public scrutiny,” said Emi MacLean, a senior staff attorney with the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “The fact that people with severe mental illness are dying in such numbers in California jails due to a lack of prompt treatment and a safe setting is unconscionable. DSH’S failure to disclose the basic information about these deaths is also illegal.” 

These records are essential for monitoring whether the state is properly protecting the rights of individuals deemed incompetent to stand trial. Facing DSH stonewalling, our ACLU investigator dug through public records, media reports and other sources to identify as many of the people who died as possible.  

These are daughters, sons, mothers and fathers who should have never been in jail – a place where people with severe mental illness don’t get the treatment they need, and their health gets worse. They died, stuck in limbo, never having gone to trial.  Markese Braxton had schizophrenia. On March 21, 2018, he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial and committed to DSH. He died in a Los Angeles County jail on June 6, 2018 – three days after a visit with his parents who said they’d found him in good spirits. Braxton’s autopsy showed that he had soft tissue damage on his hands, back, shoulder and shins – according to a 2023 report on in-custody deaths in Los Angeles County Jails by the UCLA BioCritical Studies Lab. There was blood between his brain and skull. Yet the coroner’s report says he died due to an unknown cause.  Nearly six years later, his parents are still searching for answers. 

“Two days after my son died, the coroner called us to come get the body. That’s it,” said Braxton’s father, the Rev. John Braxton, Jr. “No accountability, no answers. And to this day we still haven’t had closure. It’s just evil. And it’s happening to a lot of families.” 

On September 11, 2020, Vinetta Martin, a 32-year-old woman from San Leandro, was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. An Alameda County judge committed her to DSH for treatment. She languished for six months at Santa Rita Jail, waiting for a transfer to a state hospital. When she told the staff she wanted to kill herself, the jail put her on suicide watch. Deputies were required to check on Martin every 30 minutes. On April 3, 2021, Martin was found unconscious with a bedsheet wrapped around her neck and died later that day. She left behind a young son. 

In 2015, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California sued DSH and the Department of Developmental Services (Stiavetti v. Ahlin) over their prolonged detention of people in county jails who have been declared incompetent to stand trial. The courts ordered the state to reduce the lengthy delays that forced individuals with mental illness to languish in jail for months, while waiting for a transfer to a treatment facility. 

This latest lawsuit is part of our ongoing work monitoring DSH to ensure the agency’s compliance with the court order. 

Learn More: 

‘You can’t get out’: Mentally ill languish in California jails without trial or treatment (Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2022. 

California Supreme Court Rule that the State Must Address the Prolonged Detention in County Jails of Defendants Deemed Incompetent to Stand Trial  (ACLU Press Release, August 25, 2021) 



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