December 7, 2022
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San Diego jails’ medically vulnerable get health monitoring

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The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is launching a pilot program that will outfit 10 of the downtown Central Jail’s most medically at-risk people with a health monitoring device.

The goal is to reduce in-custody deaths, which have plagued the department for years. A state audit released in February found that San Diego jails had the highest mortality rate among California’s largest counties, and already this year they have logged a record number of deaths.

4Sight Labs, which created the devices, will provide them to the department at a cost of $1,000 each. Biosensors in the devices will work similarly to commercial fitness trackers, monitoring the vital signs and movement of people deemed the jail’s most medically vulnerable.

In a video interview posted to 4Sight Labs’ website, Cmdr. Shawn C. Laughlin from the Broomfield, Colo., Police Department, credited the devices with saving the lives of three people in custody — two who had overdosed on drugs and one experiencing complications from diabetes. Laughlin said the sensors are placed on a person’s ankle, and alerts are delivered via an iPad that’s always within an officer’s sight.

“Our policy protocol is to treat it just like a [medical emergency] alarm,” Laughlin explained.

In a media release, the sheriff’s department said no incarcerated people will be forced to participate in the pilot program. For those who do consent, the device will alert staff to any changes in their vital signs.

The devices are more costly than commercial health trackers because they must be tamper-proof and not post a security risk to the wearer or jail staff. The department said it’s still working on addressing challenges such as how best to recharge a device’s battery.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Lt. Amber Baggs said in an email that the department has not decided on an official launch date.

“We want to make sure our deputies and medical staff are all trained up on the pilot program, how to put on the devices, how to monitor the devices, changing batteries, etc.,” she said.

Baggs said the pilot has no set time length, either, and the department will expand the program when it can.

In April, the county’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, whose purview includes investigating in-custody deaths, cited the state audit in recommending that the department look into using technology, such as wearable devices, to monitor the health of incarcerated people. The recommendation noted that jails in Arkansas and Oklahoma were using bands, placed on a person’s wrist or ankle, to monitor the heart rates of people detoxing from drugs or alcohol.

In a response to the review board’s recommendation, the department said it was in the process of “reviewing several technological options, which we feel may enhance the safety and overall care of our incarcerated population.”

Paul Parker, the review board’s executive officer, described the pilot as “a major step undertaken by the [sheriff’s department], and one that should be commended.”

“There is no doubt that the utilization of these devices will save lives,” Parker said.



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