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$100,000 Settlement in Nebraska Jail Prisoner Suicide Suit

Sheridan County, Nebraska has agreed to pay $100,000 to the estate of a prisoner who committed suicide while at the Sheridan County Jail.

Jay Spotted Elk hung himself with a belt in his cell after being arrested on a misdemeanor charge of failure to appear. Spotted Elk was intoxicated and distraught at the time, and allegedly made numerous suicidal statements to Ray Heath, a sheriff’s deputy who took him to jail. Spotted Elk also injured himself while in the patrol car, repeatedly banging his head against the frame of the car, causing a gash in his head.

Heath did not seek medical attention for Spotted Elk’s head injury nor did he inform jail staff that Spotted Elk had made suicidal comments, according to the lawsuit filed by Spotted Elk’s estate. Levi McKillip, a guard working in the jail’s booking area, allegedly did not ask Spotted Elk or Heath about Spotted Elk’s head wound. McKillip also failed to remove Spotted Elk’s belt before putting him in a “drunk tank.”

Spotted Elk’s suicide was the fourth at the Sheridan County Jail since 1998. Another eight prisoners from 1998 to 2005 unsuccessfully attempted suicide. The case settled just four days before going to trial.

The terms of the settlement require Sheridan County to institute several policy changes to reduce the incidence of prisoner suicides at the jail. All jail staff are now required to undergo mandatory suicide training. Further, since Native Americans are particularly prone to jail suicide, the settlement requires jail employees to notify tribal suicide prevention staff at the nearby Pine Ridge Oglala and Rosebud reservations whenever a Native American prisoner exhibits suicidal tendencies. The suicide prevention staff, in turn, can then speak with the prisoner via telephone or face to face. The settlement also includes a five-year monitoring period – until 2015 – to ensure compliance with the settlement terms.

Spotted Elk’s estate was represented by Maren L. Chaloupka of Chaloupka, Holyoke, Hofmeister, Snyder & Chaloupka, a Scottsbluff, Nebraska law firm. See: Eastman v. County of Sheridan, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 7:07-cv-05004-JFB-TDT.

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Related legal case

Eastman v. County of Sheridan