More families filing lawsuits against Riverside County over jail deaths

Rob McMillan Image
Friday, June 2, 2023
More suits filed over deaths of inmates in Riverside County jails
In 2022, the suit claims a record-high 18 inmates died in Riverside County jails.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- For the second time in less than three months, family members of inmates who've died inside Riverside County jails stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Riverside to announce the filing of federal civil rights lawsuits.

Flanked by two attorneys, they accused Riverside County, the sheriff's department and Sheriff Chad Bianco of negligence, wrongful death, medical malpractice and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other complaints.

Among the family members who spoke out was Marissa Vasquez, who said her older brother Michael Vasquez died in a Riverside County jail last year while awaiting trial. Court records show Vasquez was facing charges for resisting arrest, burglary and possession of drug paraphernalia.

"What's my definition of a jail? A place that killed my brother before he could turn 21," said Marissa Vasquez, who said she, along with her mother, made the decision not to bail him out.

"We had one belief that he would be safer in there. We hoped he would have access to mental health resources he needed. And this was a decision we regret dearly not bailing him out."

Six days after his arrest, Vasquez was found dead in his cell. His mother said she was told the cause of death was a fentanyl overdose.

"He was not a killer. He was not evil," said Kathy Nigro, Vasquez's mother. "He was my best friend who I can't see or talk to, or even give him a hug and kiss anymore."

So far in 2023, the lawsuit claims that six inmates have died inside Riverside County jails. In 2022, the suit claims a record-high 18 inmates died in county jails.

In February this year, state attorney general Rob Bonta announced his own investigation into the Riverside County jail system.

Eyewitness News compiled California Department of Justice statistics from 2005 through 2021. Data shows that during time frame, a total of 120 inmates died in Riverside County jails, an average of 7 inmates each year. Before reporting 18 deaths in 2022 (not included in the DOJ data), the previous high was 12 deaths. That happened twice - once in 2015 and again in 2020 during the pandemic.

By comparison, a total of 148 inmates died in San Bernardino County jails during that time, an average of 8.8 inmate deaths per year.

When Eyewitness News interviewed Sheriff Bianco in August 2022, he acknowledged that the number of inmates who died in his department's custody that year did seem high. But he said approximately one-third of the inmate deaths up to that point that year were related to fentanyl overdoses.

In response to the most recent federal civil rights lawsuits, Bianco provided a statement to Eyewitness News.

"The theatrics of attorneys do nothing but further victimize families," said Bianco in the statement. "Their misleading statements for the media do not change the facts of how they died.

"The facts are that our deputies and nurses do all they can to prevent inmates from illegally taking drugs that kill them, committing suicide, or harming other inmates. We will vigorously fight these frivolous suits in court.

"Not one of these inmate deaths has involved deputies."