Questions remain after Bexar County Jail detox death

Greg Harman

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On January 4, Ricardo Guzman got a haircut. The 43-year-old San Antonio resident wanted to look good when he turned himself in at court the next day for outstanding drug-possession charges. Guzman had no way of knowing that trusting himself to Bexar County could play a part in his death three days later.

“He turned himself in on Tuesday and Thursday is when the police came to my mother-in-law's house and announced he had passed away,” said Kathy Ruiz, Guzman's sister-in-law. “They wouldn't give her any information as far as to what happened. The only thing they said was they found him on the floor and that he had passed. They wouldn't let her go identify him. They said he had already been identified.”

Guzman died at 5:46 pm on January 7 while being held in a detox cell at Bexar County Jail two days after his conviction on possession of a controlled substance. According to jail officials, a unit officer was distributing dinner trays when he found Guzman, who was detoxing off heroin, unresponsive on the cell floor.

Sheriff's deputies would still not let Guzman's mother, Lupe Guzman, see her son when she signed for his body at the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office the next day. “She thought maybe there was a possibility it was a mistake. They said no, he'd already been identified by fingerprints and photos.”

Guzman was buried on Monday, January 11, with the family still not understanding why or how he died. “He went in fine one day and then he was dead the next. Obviously something happened and we just need answers, you know? What happened to him?” asked Ruiz.

David Fathi, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, said jails across the country had been found liable in similar deaths. “It's a critical 24 or 48 hours immediately after a person is taken into a jail, and jails have to be aware of that and prepared to deal with this kind of urgent medical need. If the jail has reason to know if a certain arrestee is at risk of drug detox then they have an even stronger duty to take stronger action.”

A spokesperson for the Bexar County Jail said that while a cause of death has not been established, Guzman's death is not being investigated as a possible suicide. A toxicology report is pending at the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office.

Last year, suicide deaths at Bexar County were triple the national average.

Detainees at the jail receive comprehensive medical screenings to help determine drug dependence, mental impairment, and suicide risk. However, it is the actions that follow those screenings that matter, said Fathi.

“You can have the world's best screening program on paper, but it's only as good as the people who implement it. Obviously, if it's not being reliably done, or the screening's being done but then nothing happens as a consequence, then you're going to get bad outcomes.”

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