Courtesy Janet PlanellsOn Oct. 3

Man’s death in SF County Jail raises questions

Antolin Marenco, an inmate at County Jail, died in custody Oct. 3. That much is clear.

For now the incident remains under investigation, and therefore the Sheriff's Department is releasing little to no information, including a cause of death.

But Marenco's lawyer says the man died because of negligence. What's more, he had a history of mental health issues, including suicidal tendencies, and should have been more closely watched. Incident reports, medical records and jailhouse recording transcripts obtained by The San Francisco Examiner seem to bear this out even if they do point to doubts about his mental instability.

“The worst part about his death is he didn't have to die,” said Marla Zamora, who has represented Marenco, 40, since he was jailed in early 2013 and since serving time for assault related to a car theft arrest in which he resisted arrest. He was also serving time for an attempted escape.

Two inmates found Marenco around 2:30 p.m. Oct. 3 hanging by the neck in his cell on the seventh floor of the County Jail facility at 850 Bryant St., Zamora said.

When they called a deputy for help and the defibrillator was brought to the cell, no one knew how to work it, she said. A doctor was not called for about 10 minutes, she added.

“He was still alive when they cut him down,” she said. “I think it's gross, gross negligence.”

The Sheriff's Department will not comment directly on a case with an open investigation, but officials there did say all their deputies are trained in CPR and how to use a defibrillator.

Additionally, all inmates deemed suicidal by the Department of Public Health jail staff are put into safety rooms and any inmate suffering an acute medical need is attended to immediately.

“The Sheriff's Department places great emphasis on suicide prevention and education for both sworn staff and the inmates alike,” spokeswoman Kathy Gorwood said. “Any death in custody requires multiple independent in-depth investigations and internal review of policies-procedures. The facts of these investigations assist the department in marinating effective education and training.”

Marenco, who had a longstanding spinal injury, had been a disruptive inmate who more than once showed signs of suicidal tendencies, according to records obtained by The Examiner.

As early as 2003, he had been diagnosed by his doctors at Kaiser Permante as within the axis of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective affective disorder.

“Upon admission he had poor impulse control, major depression with suicidal ideation and was very agitated,” noted the hospital file.

A March 19 mental health hold report filed at San Francisco General Hospital in order to put Marenco on a 72-hour mental health hold noted that he was gravely disabled. The nurse who wrote the report said he was not “eating jail food and not drinking water because [he] believe[d] they are contaminated with PCP.”

A jail incident report filed April 24 noted that a guard found in Marenco's cell “a piece of sheet fashioned by hand into two loops at either end.”

Despite his history of disruption and apparent suicidal thoughts, recordings made by the jail between Marenco and his mother show another side of him.

For instance, on March 31 deputies noted that “Marenco appears to be acting crazy for his benefit to change his plea” and his mother even mentions “desperate measures for desperate things.”

About a month later, a memo to the District Attorney's Office from jail officials notes that “[a]udio recorded inmate telephone calls to Marenco's mother clearly showing [Marenco] understands what is happening and making plans to circumvent criminal violations while in sheriff's custody.”

Nevertheless, Marenco's mother, Janet Planells, says that Medical Examiner's Office officials came to her door the night of her son's death and intimated that he died by suicide.

Planells said before his death he had been housed in the jail's mental health pod since it had been known her son had suicidal tendencies.

But several months ago, after he returned from a procedure at a hospital, Marenco was not returned to that pod, said his mother.

“Why they didn't take him back there, no one knows,” she said.

Instead, Marenco was put into administrative segregation for reasons Planells said were never explained to her.

“We are seeing preventable suicides happen more and more often in county jails around the state,” said Michael Haddad, a civil-rights lawyer in Oakland.

Haddad has not worked on any cases related to suicide in San Francisco, but in other instances what he has seen is that suicide risk in jails is often recognized but not enough is done to prevent them from happening.

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