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Oklahoma County Settles Lawsuit Over Jail Prisoner’s Suicide for $350,000

by Matt Clarke

On February 20, 2019, Tulsa County, Oklahoma agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the estate of a man who committed suicide while incarcerated in the county’s jail. The suit accused jail staff of ignoring both the prisoner’s known history of mental illness and attempted suicide and his requests for mental health care. 

Charles Jernegan, 32, had a long history of serious mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt. Due to two previous incarcerations at the jail, his history was known to jail staff and medical personnel by the time he was booked into the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center on July 27, 2009.

Further, during his intake screening, Jernegan told jail nurse Faye Taylor, an employee of Correctional Healthcare Management (CHM), that he was a paranoid schizophrenic – but she failed to document his suicidal history. Therefore, he was not placed on suicide watch.

The next day, Jernegan used the jail’s “kiosk” system to submit a request for mental health treatment. Two days later, MHR-MHP Sara Sampson went to his cell to check on him, only to discover that he had been moved to another pod. She did not immediately follow up and check on Jernegan at his new location. An hour and a half later, his body was discovered hanging by a bed sheet in his cell.

Aided by Tulsa attorneys Louis W. Bullock, Patricia W. Bullock, Robert M. Blakemore, Donald E. Smolen II and Laura M. Lauth, Jernegan’s estate filed a federal civil rights complaint against Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, CHM, its parent company and five jail healthcare staff members, arguing violations of Jernegan’s rights had resulted in his death.

The lawsuit cited an absence of mental health care guidelines, inadequate mental health policies, a failure to properly train and supervise medical and mental health care personnel and a wholly inadequate method for prisoners to request medical and mental health treatment.

On the latter issue, court pleadings alleged that medical and mental health requests submitted by the kiosk method took up to three days for processing and forwarding to the correct staff, and up to another three days to address. Written requests had an even longer response time. For example, Jernegan did not receive a reply to his kiosk request before he committed suicide. The complaint also alleged chronic understaffing of medical personnel.

Jernegan was familiar with the kiosk system from his previous incarcerations at the jail. During those times, he had also submitted requests for mental health treatment. The response was identical “boilerplate” language each time: “You will be added to the mental health call out list. Please keep in mind [the psychiatrist] is only here 3 days a week.” 

Jernegan’s answers to the intake mental health screening should have resulted in a referral for a mental health evaluation. The fact that no such referral was made highlighted the inadequacies of the screening system at the jail. The district court initially denied summary judgment to the defendants on individual capacity claims, but the Tenth Circuit reversed while finding it lacked jurisdiction to consider official capacity claims. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.30].

An investigation into Jernegan’s death by the Oklahoma State Department of Health found that the jail’s methods for emergency medical and mental health care were in “direct conflict” with Oklahoma jail standards. That may have contributed to the county’s decision to settle the case for $350,000. See: Cox v. Glanz, U.S.D.C (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:11-cv-00457-JED-FHM. 

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Additional source: usnews.com

Related legal case

Cox v. Glanz