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Deaths at South Carolina Jail Under Investigation; Multiple Lawsuits Filed

Deaths at South Carolina Jail Under Investigation; Multiple Lawsuits Filed

The widow of a mentally ill man who hanged himself less than an hour after being booked into jail in Orangeburg County, South Carolina is suing the county and other defendants, alleging her husband’s death could have been prevented.

The lawsuit filed by Jenny Hearn is the “first of other cases ... against the Orangeburg County Detention Center concerning wrongful deaths of detainees,” said one of her attorneys, Carter Elliott, Jr.

At least seven prisoners died at the Orangeburg County lock-up in 2012 and 2013, including three who committed suicide.

Nathaniel Paul Hearn, 37, was arrested on November 23, 2012 and jailed after law enforcement authorities investigating a domestic violence complaint discovered bomb-making materials. The suit filed by Jenny Hearn in January 2014 claims that jail officials knew her husband had a history of mental illness but did nothing to monitor him.

The lawsuit alleges that “negligent and grossly negligent acts” by the county, jail staff and the local hospital and doctors were responsible for Hearn’s death because he was “improperly classified and sent to an unsupervised cell by himself, not on suicide watch.”

According to the complaint, video surveillance indicated that jail employees walked past Hearn’s cell three times within 45 minutes without checking on him, even though his behavior was “confrontational, hostile and uncooperative.” Hearn was locked in his cell at 10:48 p.m. Less than an hour later, at 11:41 p.m., a jail guard found him “hanging by the very sheet provided to him by the correctional staff.”

Elliott said Hearn was not given proper medical care even though the jail was aware of his history of mental illness as a result of three prior incarcerations in 2012. In a statement to The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said the county intends to fight the suit.

Medical care for prisoners at the Orangeburg County Detention Center was contracted to Georgia-based TransformHealthRx at the time of Hearn’s death. A company representative said Hearn was first taken to a hospital, where he was purportedly found to be stable, before being booked into the jail.

“We put him in a cell and 30 minutes later he was dead,” TransformHealthRx employee Laura Busbin told the Orangeburg County Council in January 2013. “I’m not sure what else we could have done.”

Also under investigation is the death of James Ray Parker, 38, who was found naked and unresponsive in an observation cell at the Orangeburg County Detention Center on February 6, 2013. Parker was extremely obese; an autopsy found he had “an irregular heartbeat, fluid in his lungs and an enlarged heart, liver and spleen,” according to The Times and Democrat. He also had a history of mental illness and was taking several medications. Parker was in jail for allegedly committing malicious injury to real property valued at $2,000 or less.

The following month, on March 15, 2013, Shannon Eason, 34, who was jailed on a first-offense drug charge, was found dead in her cell with marks around her neck. The coroner determined her death was due to self-inflicted asphyxia.

Busbin said the jail had increased suicide watches after Hearn’s death. Eason was not placed on suicide watch, however, because “nothing suggested she was suicidal,” Young stated. “In this case,” he said, “the young lady just felt like [suicide] was something she wanted to do and she did it.”

Young blamed the suicides on a lack of mental health resources for the general public and argued that TransformHealthRx had actually increased mental health services for prisoners.

“We need to find out as many answers as we can,” stated Orangeburg County Council member Janie Cooper-Smith. “We don’t want this to continue to happen. We’re going to do what we can.”

One thing the county has done is change the medical care provider at the jail; TransformHealthRx has since been replaced by another company, Tennessee-based Southern Health Partners.

Meanwhile, the family of Tony Glenn Tyler, 50, who died at the Orangeburg County Detention Center as a result of medical problems in August 2012, filed a lawsuit against the county on April 23, 2014. The complaint claims that jail staff failed to provide Tyler with adequate medical care; he reportedly had a history of seizures, heart problems and mental illness.

And in December 2014, Parker’s family filed suit against the county jail, a regional medical center and various medical providers. According to the complaint, Parker “was in such obvious mental and physical distress at the Orangeburg County Detention Center that correctional officers had to initially drag him on a sheet across the floor to an isolation cell.”

The lawsuits remain pending.




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