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Prevention means attention in the case of Joseph “Joey” Earl Morton

“This case highlights the problem with outsourcing medical and mental health care in our jail system.”

Attorney Pena: “This is truly tragic.”; Joseph Morton: Attorney says county ignored his admission of suicidal feelings.
Attorney Pena: “This is truly tragic.”; Joseph Morton: Attorney says county ignored his admission of suicidal feelings.

“This is truly tragic,” said Danielle R. Pena of San Diego’s Morris Law Firm. She was talking about the case of Joseph “Joey” Earl Morton, a 33-year-old former auto dealership employee who died by suicide while in custody at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Vista facility. Through their legal counsel, Morton’s family contends their beloved relative need not have died while in jail.

“In the month leading up to Joey’s suicide, he had been fired from his job as a car salesman due to the pandemic shutdown,” explained Pena. “Lost and with no means to care for himself, he attempted to kill himself by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ultimately, law enforcement officers intervened and placed Joey on a ‘5150’ hold for suicidal ideations.”

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From that, it sounds like the sheriff’s department with a clear understanding that they were dealing with person who was thinking of killing himself. But according to Pena, their clarity and situational understanding proved fleeting. “The day after his release, he was arrested,” the attorney continued. “While detained at Vista Detention Facility, on three different occasions, Joey admitted to medical staff that he was feeling suicidal and was suffering from untreated mental health disorders and withdrawals.” And every time, said Pena, the county medical provider “ignored his admissions because they thought he was lying.” She said that the very medical providers who should have been keeping him safe and healthy ordered that Joey be housed in an isolation cell without medication or medical monitoring. “Joey was ignored for the next four days and was found hanging in his cell on May 17, 2020.”

Now suing the county on behalf of the Morton family, Pena is part of the small team of San Diego attorneys at Morris who recently won an historic settlement from the county of San Diego in a similarly tragic death that occurred at the same Vista lock-up where Morton died. In the previous case, former San Diego deputy city attorney Chris Morris and his team secured a nearly $3 million settlement for the family of Heron Moriarty after he killed himself while incarcerated. Moriarty’s wife had warned both jailers and medical providers that her husband was a suicide risk.

Pena says the Morton family is beyond distraught — in part because there were, allegedly, many opportunities to prevent Joey Morton’s death. She believes part of the breakdown in measures that should have recognized and responded to the risk the Morton presented has to do with private-sector outsourcing. “This case highlights the problem with outsourcing medical and mental health care in our jail system. Rather than taking measures to meaningfully address training and policy deficiencies, the county instead punts its responsibility to a private, for-profit medical group that has no independent obligation to provide constitutionally adequate medical care to county inmates. That loss of accountability results in lost lives.” The county declined to comment while the case is ongoing.

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Attorney Pena: “This is truly tragic.”; Joseph Morton: Attorney says county ignored his admission of suicidal feelings.
Attorney Pena: “This is truly tragic.”; Joseph Morton: Attorney says county ignored his admission of suicidal feelings.

“This is truly tragic,” said Danielle R. Pena of San Diego’s Morris Law Firm. She was talking about the case of Joseph “Joey” Earl Morton, a 33-year-old former auto dealership employee who died by suicide while in custody at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Vista facility. Through their legal counsel, Morton’s family contends their beloved relative need not have died while in jail.

“In the month leading up to Joey’s suicide, he had been fired from his job as a car salesman due to the pandemic shutdown,” explained Pena. “Lost and with no means to care for himself, he attempted to kill himself by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ultimately, law enforcement officers intervened and placed Joey on a ‘5150’ hold for suicidal ideations.”

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From that, it sounds like the sheriff’s department with a clear understanding that they were dealing with person who was thinking of killing himself. But according to Pena, their clarity and situational understanding proved fleeting. “The day after his release, he was arrested,” the attorney continued. “While detained at Vista Detention Facility, on three different occasions, Joey admitted to medical staff that he was feeling suicidal and was suffering from untreated mental health disorders and withdrawals.” And every time, said Pena, the county medical provider “ignored his admissions because they thought he was lying.” She said that the very medical providers who should have been keeping him safe and healthy ordered that Joey be housed in an isolation cell without medication or medical monitoring. “Joey was ignored for the next four days and was found hanging in his cell on May 17, 2020.”

Now suing the county on behalf of the Morton family, Pena is part of the small team of San Diego attorneys at Morris who recently won an historic settlement from the county of San Diego in a similarly tragic death that occurred at the same Vista lock-up where Morton died. In the previous case, former San Diego deputy city attorney Chris Morris and his team secured a nearly $3 million settlement for the family of Heron Moriarty after he killed himself while incarcerated. Moriarty’s wife had warned both jailers and medical providers that her husband was a suicide risk.

Pena says the Morton family is beyond distraught — in part because there were, allegedly, many opportunities to prevent Joey Morton’s death. She believes part of the breakdown in measures that should have recognized and responded to the risk the Morton presented has to do with private-sector outsourcing. “This case highlights the problem with outsourcing medical and mental health care in our jail system. Rather than taking measures to meaningfully address training and policy deficiencies, the county instead punts its responsibility to a private, for-profit medical group that has no independent obligation to provide constitutionally adequate medical care to county inmates. That loss of accountability results in lost lives.” The county declined to comment while the case is ongoing.

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