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Fifteen Minute Cell Checks Insufficient to Shield Texas Jail from Liability for Inmate Suicide

Fifteen Minute Cell Checks Insufficient to Shield Texas Jail from Liability for Inmate Suicide

A Texas federal court refused to grant summary judgment to a sheriff who claimed that his policy of having jailers check on suicidal prisoners every fifteen minutes was constitutional despite the successful suicide of a prisoner under the policy.

Damion Michael Schroeder was a pretrial detainee at the Gillespie County (Texas) Jail and had tested positive for methamphetamine use. He was "lethargic and unable to go through the normal booking process" so jailers placed him in a nearby cell until they could finish booking him. Two jailers noticed noises from the cell and discovered Schroeder had torn a strip from a blanket and tied it to a metal bench support brace. Believing this to be a suicide attempt, they placed him in an observation cell under "suicide watch," to be observed at least once every fifteen minutes, after booking him.

At the time, the written jail policy required jailers to contact the jail's on-call physician when a suicide is attempted and for the doctor to determine the frequency of observation. This was not done.

During a subsequent shift, jail guard Regan Givens was responsible for the fifteen-minute observations. Video recordings showed Givens observing Schroeder at less than fifteen minute intervals. Unbeknownst to Givens, Schroeder's socks had not been taken from him and he used them to hang himself. Givens discovered him and took immediate steps to cut him down and revive him* Nonetheless, Schroeder died in the hospital a few days later.

Schroeder's estate and family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Gillespie County, the Sheriff's Department, the Sheriff and Givens. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment.

The court granted the motion on all defendants and issues except for the sheriff and the constitutionality of the suicide policy. The sheriff had failed or refused to produce the previous policy and the one in effect at the time of the suicide had not been approved by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and did not comply with state jail standards. Further, the sheriff had testified during depositions that the jailers' failure to notify the jail's physician and making the call to institute a fifteen-minute suicide watch on their own was in accordance with his policy. The court also took into account a warning by Judge Goldberg in a concurring opinion in Rhyme v. Henderson County, 973 F.3d 386 (5th Cir. 1992) that "periodic, rather than continuous [checks of suicidal prisoners] will not [henceforth] suffice." Therefore, the claim that the policy was unconstitutional was allowed to go to trial with Sheriff Buddy Mills the only remaining defendant. However, the case was lost at trial in August 2014.

See: Schroeder v. Gillespie County, 23 F. Supp. 3d 775 (W.D.TX, 2014).

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Related legal case

Schroeder v. Gillespie County