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San Diego County jails are the largest mental health provider in the region

Activists say 1 out of 3 inmates require medication to treat mental illness.

SAN DIEGO — In San Diego County, about one in every three people in the sheriff's department custody is on prescribed medication to treat a mental illness. 

That makes San Diego County jails the largest mental health provider in the region. A rally hosted by the North County Equity and Justice Coalition was held Friday afternoon to call attention to the issue.

Since the pandemic, there's been a concerted effort to address mental health issues. As more people get help, jails and prisons are also seeing more inmates who need mental health assistance leaving law enforcement with a growing problem. 

Law enforcement like deputies, police and guards are tasked with enforcing the law, not tackling mental illness. That means they often aren't equipped to respond effectively in a mental health crisis, nor tell the difference between criminal thinking and psychosis, law enforcement experts say.  

Sheriff's department officials say they now have more inmates with mental health issues that require treatment.

San Diego County jails have one of the highest rates of in-custody deaths in the country. A lot of those deaths come from suicides and drug overdoses. 

Cheryl Canson was at Friday afternoon’s rally at the Sheriff’s Department Headquarters. She said she's done everything she could to raise her two sons who struggle with mental illness. Now, she's worried about her sons’ safety and mental health behind bars. 

“Don't take your eyes off of them and think they're in a safe place where they are,” Canson advised to anyone with a loved one who is incarcerated. “No, not at all. They constantly struggle to be heard and constantly struggle to let someone know that they're suicidal and they feel unsafe."

CBS 8 reached out to the Sheriff's Department for comment on Friday’s rally about what they're doing to address mental health, and other medical issues behind bars. 

They responded with a statement that said,

"Our sympathies go out to the families of people who have died in custody, and we understand their desire to be heard. The sheriff is committed to managing jails that are safe for the people who are in custody and for our staff. We are making significant changes to healthcare, programs, and the infrastructure of our jail system. Many of the improvements in our jails can be found here."

Activists and families we talked to say they appreciate Sheriff Martinez's efforts to reform San Diego County jails but they say that more needs to be done quickly to help save lives.

WATCH RELATED: San Diego Sheriff's deputy arrested trying to enter Navy base without clearance (March 2023).

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