Why are so many dying in California jails?


More people are dying in California jails than they did before the pandemic, and it’s not because of COVID-19. 

On the surface, the number of deaths is confusing: California has fewer people in jails than at any point in the last two decades. Yet between 2021 and 2023, people died at rates that exceed some of the United States’ most troubled jails, including the one on Rikers Island in New York. 

CalMatters justice reporter Nigel Duara and data reporter Jeremia Kimelman spent more than nine months looking into deaths in big jails and small jails, in rural holding cells and downtown megacomplexes. Most of the people who died were awaiting trial

We found that:

  • Aside from natural causes, the two major causes of death were suicide, followed by overdoses, particularly related to fentanyl; 
  • Even when local oversight boards suggest changes to jail policy, nothing compels sheriffs to listen to them;
  • Until recently, the state’s jail oversight board was not even notified about deaths inside the county-run lockups.

A 2021 State Auditor’s report criticized the oversight board for failing to enforce its own rules and standards on mental health checks and in-cell wellness checks of inmates.

At least one member of the oversight board believes the board needs to spend more time and money investigating jails. 

  • Norma Cumpian, Board of State and Community Corrections appointee: “All we’re doing is making recommendations to sheriffs.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged almost five years ago that the state would take a stronger hand to prevent deaths in the 57 jail systems run by California county sheriffs.

In every year since, more people have died in California jails than when Newsom made that pledge — hitting a high of 215 in 2022.

He has steered more money to the oversight board, allowing it to carry out surprise jail inspections. And, he recently signed laws that give the board a clear role in monitoring deaths and expand it to include additional members with expertise in health care.

CalMatters asked Newsom about the high death rates at an event in early March. He answered in the third person: “The governor just signed legislation to actually be able to create a point person specifically responsible for overseeing what’s happening in county jails, working with (Attorney General Rob Bonta), who’s also been advancing investigations.”


  1. Right now Riverside County jails are under federal investigation. Due to the continual climb in numbers, all year round, of deaths of inmates in custody. This investigation has been long overdue.


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