MODESTO -- The family of a 22-year-old man who hung himself while in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail has filed a claim with the county seeking damages, alleging that the inmate was suicidal and placed on a psychiatric hold but instead was returned to the general population.
Steven Vigil Rodrigues hung himself Feb. 19 with bed sheets inside his jail cell, which he shared with another inmate who said he was asleep at the time, according to a Sheriff's Department response to a civil grand jury report.
The sheriff's response indicated that Rodrigues had been placed on "suicide watch" after his arrest, but an evaluation by medical staff determined he could be placed in a regular cell at the downtown Modesto jail.
The claim was filed by Santa Barbara-based attorney Joshua Lynn on behalf of Rodrigues' parents, Ruby and Thomas Rodrigues. Lynn said jail officials "utterly failed" to keep Rodrigues safe even though he was demonstrably suicidal.
"It's tragic circumstances made more tragic by the avoidability of his death," Lynn said.
The parents allege their son also tried to hang himself at the jail Feb. 17. They are seeking damages for reasons that include pain and suffering, funeral and burial services, and punitive damages for the alleged wrongful act. The amount sought has not been determined.
The claim was received by the county's risk management department and the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 16. Jody Hayes, county deputy executive officer, said the claim is being reviewed, which the county has up to 45 days to do. If rejected, the claim is likely a precursor to a civil lawsuit.
The Sheriff's Department declined to comment about details alleged in the claim. It would not reveal the nature of Rodrigues' criminal charges or whether he was serving a sentence or awaiting prosecution.
Treated at DMC
It's unclear how Rodrigues tried to kill himself Feb. 17, but the claim alleges that the suicide attempt was unsuccessful and he was treated at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. An attending physician at the hospital placed Rodrigues on a 72-hour psychiatric hold because he was determined to be suicidal, according to the claim.
His parents and their attorney allege that Rodrigues was returned to the downtown jail and placed in a cell among the general inmate population.
The claim alleges that the jail officials' actions were "malicious, oppressive, consciously disregarded the rights and safety" of Rodrigues so much so that he attempted suicide a second time within 48 hours. Rodrigues was pronounced dead at 5:09 p.m. Feb. 19.
The Stanislaus County civil grand jury referenced Rodrigues' death in its report about the sheriff's jail facilities. The report was released early last month; soon after, Sheriff Adam Christianson issued his response.
Christianson agreed with the grand jurors' findings that the downtown Modesto jail is outdated and aging, and that the sheriff's Public Safety Center jail facility on Hackett Road has a direct supervision design that allows better monitoring of inmates.
He disagreed with the grand jurors on another matter, saying the jail cells' bars and structural design can't be altered to reduce the risk of inmate suicide. Instead, Christianson wrote the department uses heightened referrals to mental health staff, increased observations by jail deputies and increased use of beds at the Public Safety Center for inmates with mental health problems to minimize the risk of suicide.
The downtown jail has two "safety cells" for inmates who may be suicidal or a danger to others, and deputies check on them twice every 30 minutes, the sheriff wrote in his response. Outside the safety cells, the inmates are checked every hour.
After Rodrigues' death, more frequent checks are made on inmates who are moved out of a safety cell into a regular jail cell, Christianson wrote in his response. Jail officials also follow up with clinical assessments for these inmates.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.