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Late last week, Vickie Lewis received a letter from her son, Jerrell Lacy. It was dated April 7 — four days before Lacy died in San Diego County’s Central Jail.

“A voice from the grave,” Lewis said Friday evening at a vigil for her son, held near the large gated entrance to the jail’s sally port.

Lacy, who was 38 when he died, had been in custody for eight months, his mother said.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, on April 11, shortly after 11 a.m., Lacy was seen by jail medical staff after complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain. He was scheduled to be transported to the hospital, but “went into medical distress,” the department said in a statement. Lacy died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

According to preliminary autopsy findings, Lacy succumbed to a blood clot that had moved from his leg to his lung. But the letter he sent his mom suggests there could be more to the story.

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“I was involved in a use of force between staff and inmate when the deputy burst my head and I was sent outside to the hospital,” Lacy wrote.

He went on to say that his glasses were lost in the altercation and had not been replaced. He asked his mom to help him get new glasses and to contact his attorney to let her know what had happened.

A Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman said Lacy had a history of “assaultive and violent behavior” and had attacked a deputy on April 2.

“Two deputies were treated at occupational health centers for injuries sustained as a result of Lacy’s attack,” spokeswoman Lt. Amber Baggs told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Lacy was sent to Tri-City Medical Center so he could be medically evaluated as well. He was not admitted and was cleared to return back to the facility the same day.”

Lacy was the sixth person to die in San Diego jail custody this year. A seventh inmate, Raphael Ruiz, was released from custody minutes before he died from COVID-19 in a local hospital. Although he technically was no longer an inmate, his death is being investigated as an in-custody death.

Lacy’s death comes amid growing scrutiny of the San Diego jail system. A state audit released February concluded that San Diego County jails lag in inmate care and safety, particularly for inmates with mental illness. The audit urged state lawmakers to intervene to force the Sheriff’s Department to make changes.

An outside analysis by the firm Analytica Consulting, commissioned by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board and released last week, found that San Diego County jails had the highest number of “excess deaths” — deaths in excess of what one would expect based on countywide mortality rates — among California’s largest counties.

The findings echo a 2019, multi-part investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Dying Behind Bars.”

Lewis said her son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia in his late teens and he would occasionally act out, leading to an extensive criminal record.

In August 2021, Lacy was charged with grand theft auto and driving under the influence of an illicit substance.

Court records show that six times over the last nine years, Lacy’s attorneys have tried to have him deemed incompetent to stand trial, meaning his mental illness prevented him from understanding court proceedings and assisting in his own defense. In 2016, records show, he was placed under a conservatorship after being found unable to care for himself.

Notes in his court files suggest he did not do well in jail, refusing to leave his cell for psychiatric evaluations and, in one instance, refusing to take his medication.

Lewis said that her son was usually housed in the mental health unit on the jail’s sixth floor, but told her recently that he had been moved into the general population and feared for his safety.

“My son was calling me, telling me he was getting neglected,” she said at the vigil.

Lewis said she received a phone call from Lacy’s cellmate who told her he had asked deputies to take Lacy to the infirmary the morning of April 11 because he was complaining of chest pain. The deputies refused and, moments later, Lacy collapsed.

Lacy’s family is raising money for an independent autopsy via GoFundMe. At the vigil Friday, Yusef Miller, from the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, said San Diego County jails need a higher level of oversight.

“We demand that the (California) attorney general, Rob Bonta, come in to oversee reform in our jails,” Miller said.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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