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San Diego County pays $4.35 million to a woman who gouged both eyes out while in jail

Guards refused to put restraints on Tanya Suarez who was in the throes of a meth-induced psychosis
Credit: KFMB

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The county of San Diego has agreed to pay $4.35 million to a woman who gouged both of her eyeballs out while in a methamphetamine-induced psychosis at Las Colinas Detention Facility in 2019.

The multi-million dollar payout adds to the millions the county and taxpayers have shelled out for systemic failures inside San Diego County jails.

Tanya Suarez was just 23 years old when police arrested her at a San Diego gas station on May 6, 2019.

Suarez, according to court documents obtained by CBS 8, was attending San Diego State University when she began experimenting with meth. That night, according to a 2020 lawsuit, the "experiment went terribly wrong."

Suarez was delusional, screaming at the officers to shoot her, and was subsequently arrested for being under the influence of a controlled substance.

Upon arriving at Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee, Suarez, who was still acting strange, told an intake nurse that she had recently attempted suicide. 

Minutes later, the delusions intensified and Suarez shouted that she feared the guards were planning to torture her. 

At 4:38 that morning, Suarez, according to her complaint, made her first attempt at clawing her eye out.

Deputies at the jail wrestled with Suarez, placing handcuffs on her and placed a spit sock over her head. 

Yet, despite the threats of self-harm, Suarez' complaint says jail supervisors failed to take the advice from a deputy to place Suarez in a safety cell.

According to the lawsuit, a deputy told supervisors at the time, "I suggested to the supervisors on scene the option of utilizing the Prostraint chair to prevent Suarez further harming herself or possible having to use force to stop her again in the future," reads the lawsuit.

Instead, the complaint states that Suarez was stripped and placed inside a cell. In an attempt to reduce the risk of her tearing at her eyeballs, deputies clipped her fingernails. However, the same deputy who asked to restrain Suarez says her nails appeared more jagged and sharp than they did prior to the clipping. 

Credit: Suarez Complaint

According to the federal complaint, at 5:04 am, a deputy began recording Suarez thrashing around and clawing at her eyeball while naked inside of her cell.

Six minutes later guards noticed an eyeball on the floor. Despite this, they failed to restrain Suarez. Seconds later, Suarez tore out her other eye.

Now, Suarez, who is fully blind, has agreed to settle her lawsuit against the county for $4.35 million. 

Danielle Pena, a partner at PHG Law Group which specializes in jail and custody claims, represented Suarez.

Pena says Suarez is glad the case is over and can now move on with her life.

Pena, however says the settlement is just another example of the need for reform in county jails.

"When you arrest someone, and you incarcerate them, they are in your care and custody," Pena told CBS 8. "And if they were given some foreseeable notice that Ms. Suarez was going to harm herself, they had the responsibility to intervene. The county was hit with a $4.3 million dollar settlement because they knew [Suarez] was going to inflict harm on her eyesight. And they let her do it."

But Pena says there is much more to this case.

According to the complaint, and to Pena, the watch commander who decided to forego restraints that morning in 2019 also allegedly instructed others to remove any mention of that in their reports.

"Discovery revealed that [Supervisors] removed the [deputies] incident report that referenced utilizing the Prostraint Chair to prevent [Suarez] from further injuring herself prior to placement in the safety cell," reads the lawsuit.

To make matters worse, says Pena, is the evidence that a deputy inside decided to record Suarez outside of Suarez's cell instead of going in to help.

"She was being recorded on another device by a deputy, instead of intervening, the deputy recorded her. They had notice that an inmate was going to harm themselves. They should have prevented that from happening or taken significant steps to stop it. That did not happen."

The evidence, says Pena, all points to one thing; the need to reform San Diego County's jails.

"The County of San Diego and its jail system is in crisis mode. It has been for the last seven years. They are making policy adjustments but the people that they have operating those jails need to go. This is going to continue until the county decides to remove these bad actors from operating our jails," said Pena.

The County of San Diego did not respond to CBS 8's request for comment. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department told CBS 8, "We are grateful the case has been settled, but we know this cannot erase the pain and trauma from this incident or the life-changing aftermath.  The San Diego Sheriff's Department sends our sincere sympathy to Ms. Suarez, her family, and all who were affected by this horrific and shocking incident."

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