by Matt Clarke
A $200,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed over the death of a mentally ill Oklahoma jail prisoner emphasizes what Oklahoma sheriffs have been saying for years: they are ill prepared to deal with the rapidly increasing number of mentally ill detainees in their jails.
Sheriffs in the Sooner State often complain that they are the largest providers of mental health care in their counties, referring to the large percentage of prisoners who suffer from mental illness. However, most jailers are not trained to deal with the mentally ill and resort to force when faced with a non-cooperative prisoner who has mental health problems. Which can have tragic results.
Corey Carter, 40, was arrested as a felon in possession of a firearm and booked into the McCurtain County Jail on February 12, 2015. Carter, who had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, refused guards’ orders to change into a jail uniform, so they placed him in a restraint chair. He did not resist. Four hours later, after he still refused to change clothes, they took him to a shower room to force him to comply.
Shortly after entering the shower area, Carter was beaten and shocked with a Taser. After about seven minutes the jailers dragged his limp and naked body out of the room and strapped him back into the restraint chair. He never regained consciousness.
Carter was eventually taken to a hospital where he was pronounced brain dead; he was later removed from life support. A medical examiner’s report found the cause of his death was a heart attack with Taser shock, restraint and struggle, methamphetamine use and an enlarged heart listed as contributing factors.
Carter’s mother filed a federal civil rights suit against the Jail Trust, McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office and jail employees. She alleged that Sheriff Scott McLain had failed to adequately train his staff to handle and communicate with mentally ill prisoners. The defendants agreed to settle the case for $200,000 in October 2016, and U.S. District Court Judge James Payne sealed most of the records. See: Carter v. McCurtain County Jail Trust, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Okla.), Case No. 6:16-cv-00008-KEW.
Carter’s death demonstrated that the failure of Oklahoma sheriffs to train jail staff in dealing with the mentally ill can have serious consequences. Jailers who are certified peace officers must take a two-hour basic mental health class offered by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, plus a two-hour refresher course the next year.
“It was pretty mundane, really not very informative,” said Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette, who supervises the Tulsa County Jail. “We are not trained, nor do we train our people to be mental-health capable. But because it’s becoming such an issue now, we’re having to deal with it.”
The Tulsa County Jail is opening special units to house mentally ill prisoners and guards assigned to those units must complete a 24-hours crisis intervention training course, according to Robinette.
“We run a good jail, but regardless of that, a lot of uses of force occur because there is not an understanding of what is going on at the time,” she said. “Detention officers are trained to react to what they’re given.”
Smaller towns in Oklahoma often have jailers who are not peace officers; thus, they are not required to take any training on how to deal with mentally ill prisoners. State Health Department records indicate that only 24 county or municipal jails require non-peace-officer jailers to take mental health training. Just three jails – in Oklahoma County, Stephens County and Midwest City – have had their staff undergo full crisis intervention training to help them effectively deal with mental health issues.
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Related legal case
Carter v. McCurtain County Jail Trust
|Case No. 6:16-cv-00008-KEW