A California County is facing legal action after a 21-year-old woman committed suicide while in jail custody. A lawsuit filed by the woman’s family last week claims that jail staff repeatedly ignored signs that she was a serious risk to her own safety.
Alicia Upton was arrested on April 19, 2022 on suspicion of threatening to stab another woman, according to The Orange County Register. Upton received a psychological screening after her arrest. According to the lawsuit, she expressed suicidal thoughts during this screening, telling a Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) deputy “I always kinda wanted to die.”
Two days later, after continuing to exhibit suicidal behavior, Upton’s mental health was rated “severe” and was placed in a “safety cell,” a cell made specifically for suicidal inmates, according to the lawsuit. Yet despite her clear mental health distress—including numerous visible self-inflicted cuts on her left arm—Upton was removed from the safety cell on April 24 and put into another jail cell without safety features.
The cell “was known to pose risk of death [and] injury to suicidal inmates by virtue of the hazards contained in the cell,” according to the lawsuit. “These hazards included bed sheets which were known to be used as ligatures by suicidal inmates and attachment points for hanging such as the corners of the bunk beds.” On April 28—less than ten days after entering custody—Upton hanged herself in her cell using the sheets from her bed.
“Medical and custody staff had an opportunity to observe the clear signs of Ms. Upton’s acute suicidality,” the suit reads. “Despite these alarming signs, the … medical and custody staff were indifferent to Ms. Upton’s health and safety.”
And Upton wasn’t alone. The lawsuit noted that 18 people died while being held in Riverside County jails in 2022—a 15-year high. However, despite the prevalence of in-custody deaths and a class-action lawsuit challenging the health and safety standards for inmates in the jail, RCSD officials “deliberately failed to take even modest actions to prevent in-custody deaths at the Riverside County correctional facilities,” the suit claims.
Things have only gotten worse since Upton’s death. By November 2023, 22 people had died in RCSD custody, with 12 of those deaths related to incarceration conditions within RCSD county jails. Making the situation worse, the suit alleges that RCSD hasn’t been complying with state laws mandating transparency around in-custody deaths of inmates, including considerable delays in reporting deaths and incorrectly labeling inmates who died as pre-trial detainees as “‘sentenced’ post-conviction prisoners” in reports to the Justice Department.
In fact, in February 2023, RCSD’s misconduct sparked an investigation from the California Department of Justice, which is still ongoing. “Unfortunately, it is clear that — amid concerning levels of in-custody deaths and allegations of misconduct — too many families and communities in Riverside County are hurting and looking for answers,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta during a February press conference. “We all benefit when there is action to ensure the integrity of policing in our state.”