Richard Matus, Jr., called home every chance he got — even during his four years in jail. His two kids came to anticipate hearing his voice through the scratchy jail phone, and so last fall when his 13-year-old daughter got back from her first day of school, she asked her grandmother: Had her dad called yet?
Lisa Matus needed to figure out a way to tell her: Her father had died. Just hours after a seemingly normal conversation with his mother, the 29-year-old Matus had been found unresponsive in a Riverside County jail cell. At first, his family struggled to get answers, but eventually a coroner’s report showed that he died of an overdose before jail staff could intervene to save him.
Amid a surge of inmate deaths, Riverside County has come under increasing scrutiny from state investigators and now is facing new legal action in federal court. Not only has Matus’ family filed suit, but their lawyer told The Times on Saturday that there are at least five other families planning to do the same after their loved ones died in local lockups.
“This is the first of six federal lawsuits that we are bringing on behalf of the six families that we are representing,” said Long Beach-based lawyer Denisse Gastélum. “Our goal is to shed public light on the ongoing, endemic, unabated risks of injury and death to pretrial detainees who are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law and are forced to be incarcerated in the Riverside County jails.”
With 18 deaths, 2022 was the Riverside County jails’ deadliest year in over a decade, according to the lawsuit.
In the past, Sheriff Chad Bianco has taken to social media to blame families of the incarcerated for their deaths, and called lawyers who represent them “bad” people. He’s also blamed the inmates themselves, alleging that people “purposely get arrested just to smuggle drugs” into the jails.
“Every single one of these inmate deaths was out of anyone’s control,” he said previously. “The fact of the matter is that they just happened to be in our custody.”
On Saturday, his office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
According to his lawyer, Matus grew up in Riverside County. As a kid, his family nicknamed him “Bump” — a moniker he earned from being a clumsy boy who always carried around his stuffed elephant, Bump.
In the years before his arrest, Matus made a living installing security systems and working as a stagehand for his brother’s music events. His lawyer said he didn’t have a history of heavy drug use. But in 2018, both he and his younger brother, Raymond, ended up behind bars after they were accused of attempted murder during the robbery of a marijuana dispensary.
Richard Matus maintained his innocence and wanted to take the case to trial. So he spent four years in the county jail awaiting his day in court.
On the evening of Aug. 10, Matus called his mother. She said he sounded coherent and engaged, according to the lawsuit.
But a few hours later, records show that deputies found him unresponsive inside his cell at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta. By that point, according to the suit, he’d been “experiencing a medical emergency for an appreciable amount of time.”
The deputies who responded a little before midnight administered doses of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, but found they were too late. According to a report by the coroner division of the sheriff’s office, Matus died from an overdose of fentanyl, combined with alcohol. It’s not clear how he got hold of the substances, or whether he ingested the powerful opioid on purpose.
At least six other jail deaths last year were the result of drug overdoses, and three more were deemed suicides. Four were by natural causes, two were homicides, and the cause of death for two had not been determined as of last week when the Matus suit was filed.
Aside from laying out the details of last year’s fatalities, the lawsuit accused the county and the sheriff’s department of “great indifference,” saying they were “repeatedly put on notice of great dangers which existed within the Riverside County correctional facilities through the long history of in-custody deaths.”
Specifically, the suit pointed to a 2013 class action case filed by three inmates who alleged that their constitutional rights had been violated because of the bad medical and mental health services they received behind bars. That suit eventually led to a consent decree, requiring the county to make improvements.
Better mental health and medical care, Gastélum said, would help prevent so many overdoses and other in-custody deaths.
“There is no good reason that we should have folks dying in our jails,” Gastélum said. “Unlike in some states, California has in place all these regulations to protect incarcerated people. We’re going to demand that they comply.”
The 50-page lawsuit alleges negligence, failure to supervise employees and failure to provide medical care but does not specify the amount of damages the family is seeking.
Last month, the string of Riverside County jail deaths spurred the state’s attorney general to begin investigating the sheriff’s office over allegations of excessive force and inhumane jail conditions.
“It is time for us to shine a light on the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office and its practices,” Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said at the time. “Too many families and communities in Riverside are hurting and looking for answers.”
In response, Bianco released a video statement promising to cooperate with the probe, while dismissing it as a political stunt.
“This investigation is based on nothing but false and misleading statements and straight-out lies from activists, including their attorneys,” Bianco said. “This will prove to be a complete waste of time and resources.”
The aim of the probe is to figure out whether the sheriff’s office has shown a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing. If the state’s investigation shows that they have, Bonta could get court-ordered remedies to correct it.
In recent months, Bonta has launched investigations into other law enforcement agencies, including the Torrance Police Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. And more than two years ago, Bonta’s predecessor opened an investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Los Angeles jails also saw a high number of deaths last year. Records from the county medical examiner show that 44 people died in custody, making it the second-deadliest year of the past decade.
The developments in California come amid reports of worsening conditions in jails across the country. Last year, large jails in New York City and Houston made headlines for an uptick in deaths. Meanwhile, lockups in West Virginia, Texas, Washington and other states are struggling with problems caused by aging facilities, increasing populations and surging violence.
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