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Marion County, Indiana Jail Plagued by Prisoner Deaths, Ensuing Lawsuits

by Lonnie Burton

As of January 2016, Marion County, Indiana Sheriff John Layton had a banner hanging above the entrance to the county jail that read “Top 1% of Sheriff’s Offices in America!” But the families of more than a dozen prisoners who died at the facility since 2009 would likely disagree with that designation.

“We all know there are serious problems at the Marion County Jail,” said attorney Eric Pavlack, who is representing several families in wrongful death suits. He described one egregious case in which “multiple guards walked by a young man’s cell while he was dying and did nothing about it for hours.”

That young man was Marshal Carman. The 29-year-old was booked into the Marion County Jail in September 2014 after trying to steal a computer from Wal-Mart as a birthday present for his son. Carman died of a heart attack in his cell in the early morning. According to a lawsuit filed by Carman’s mother, he lay on the floor naked for hours without moving as uninterested guards repeatedly walked by.

Jail employees finally found Carman’s comatose body, but instead of seeking medical care they merely picked him up and put him on a cot facedown, where he remained for several more hours before he was finally seen by medical staff, then later pronounced dead. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.44].

“I supposed three hours of lying facedown and no movement finally prompted them to do something about it,” Pavlack said.

It turned out that Carman had been denied his Klonopin medication – an anti-anxiety and depression drug – and he suffered a panic attack and heart failure as a result. Two days before he died, Carman had complained of chest pains but received no treatment, Pavlack noted.

Carman’s case was one of numerous deaths at the troubled facility over the past eight years, which have included a number of suicides. Indeed, suicides at the jail reached “epidemic proportions” in 2015, said Sheriff Layton. That year three prisoners killed themselves, bringing the total to at least 12 since 2009.

Pavlack also represents the family of DeJuan Shepherd, who hung himself in a shower at the Marion County Jail in 2014. Shepherd suffered from mental illness and was screened by a jail psychiatrist just hours before he committed suicide. The psychiatrist misdiagnosed Shepherd’s bipolar schizophrenia as “bad anxiety,” and sent him on his way.

The family of Mark Snyder said he killed himself in a similar fashion at the jail in 2013. Pavlack has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Snyder’s family.

Other prisoners who committed suicide at the Marion County Jail in recent years include Thomas Cook, Marvin L. Sharp and Joseph Defur, while a prisoner in federal custody, Russell Taylor, tried to kill himself in May 2015. Thomas S. Miles, incarcerated at the Marion County Jail II, run by CoreCivic (formerly CCA), committed suicide on August 30, 2016. He was on suicide watch at the time.

Sheriff Layton’s response to the spate of successful and attempted suicides? He formed a task force to “examine jail suicide prevention policies.” The task force issued a report in June 2016 that recommended changes in the jail’s structural design, policies and employee training. Medical care at the Marion County Jail is reportedly provided by Correct Care Solutions, a for-profit company.

“It’s that they’re understaffed and they’re underfunded and they’re overcrowded and they don’t have the resources to provide these people with the care that they are entitled to,” Pavlack said. He noted that Sheriff Layton had disciplined 18 deputies and demoted the jail commander in October 2015, but more improvements were needed.

“Of course it’s terribly ironic when people say one thing and do another and we see it all the time,” Pavlack stated. “We wish they would concentrate on proper performance instead of touting about how great they do things.”

It is unknown whether the “Top 1% of Sheriff’s Offices in America!” banner remains posted above the entrance to the Marion County Jail.