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California: $1 Million Settlement in Suit Over Mentally Ill Jail Prisoner’s Suicide

by Matt Clarke

On December 28, 2017, the family and estate of a mentally ill prisoner who committed suicide while incarcerated at the Yuba County jail in California filed suit in federal court alleging violations of his civil rights. The case settled ten months later for $1 million.

Bertram Hiscock, 34, killed himself in January 2017 on his third suicide attempt since arriving at the jail 77 days earlier. It was the second time he had tried to choke himself to death by swallowing his own feces and urine. 

“I don’t want what happened to my brother to continue to happen to other people,” said Vincent Hiscock, a lecturer in the English Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Although Bertram had graduated as valedictorian from his high school and studied theology and earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, he began to suffer from bipolar disorder type 1. The mental illness resulted in hallucinations and caused him to display odd behavior; his condition was largely managed by the drug Abilify. 

“He was being exceptionally careful in wanting to stay well,” Vincent said.

But on November 14, 2016, Bertram suffered a mental health episode during which he placed his mother in a choke hold and walked her down a street. Responding police arrested him and, despite his mother’s pleas to take him to a psychiatric hospital, booked him into the Yuba County jail on charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment. 

Hiscock received no psychiatric care or medication for over a month, even though he told jail staff at booking that he had been diagnosed as bipolar and required Abilify to manage his symptoms. Denied the medication, his mental health began to deteriorate. 

“I stripped my body down to tiny little feet, tendons and a piece of scalp,” he told guards. “I had a purple elephant in my throat, but it’s out now.”

By his third week in jail, Hiscock was being housed in administrative segregation, locked down for 23 hours a day with no access to natural sunlight, though the light outside his cell remained on and visible through the door. A guard described him as “crying, pushing his clothes and bedsheets out of his cell and rambling incoherently.” He was moved to a medical isolation cell with orders to check on him every 30 minutes. 

But with no mental health staff on duty at the jail that afternoon in December 2016, he was instead connected via telephone to an unlicensed “crisis counselor,” whose notes recorded that Hiscock thought he was “having a mental crisis from talking to too many Michaels and watching too many Toms.”

“Can you tell them to turn off the light at night so I can sleep?” Hiscock asked the counselor. “I feel like I should have been put in a firetruck and taken to the hospital. I didn’t do anything.”

The next day, Hiscock attempted to strangle himself with his own hands. He was stripped of his clothes and placed in a 7-foot by 7-foot padded cell with no toilet, bed or other amenities. He had to urinate and defecate through a grate in the same floor he slept on, and was denied access to showers or the exercise area.

Five days later, on December 20, 2016, he attempted suicide again by stuffing feces down his throat. That prompted his first mental health treatment, a visit by a psychiatrist who described him as “floridly psychotic” and prescribed Zyprexa Zydis, a medication that seemed to work well enough that Hiscock was able to follow a command to pour a cup of urine down the floor grate when the psychiatrist returned for a follow-up visit.

But at that same visit Hiscock said the medication made him “feel like a zebra” and that his “midsection is shredded cheese.” Just over a week later, on December 29, 2016, a second psychiatrist switched his medication to Abilify. The first psychiatrist reevaluated Hiscock on January 4, 2017, scheduling a follow-up evaluation in a month.

In between those two psychiatric visits, a Yuba County judge declared Hiscock incompetent to stand trial and set a hearing date to place him in a state psychiatric hospital. Before the hearing could take place, on January 29, 2017, Hiscock again stuffed his own excrement into his throat and choked to death. 

On the day he died, Hiscock had banged on his cell door for 45 minutes. Despite an order to check on him every 15 minutes, no guard responded. Hours later he was found dead. At the time, mental health services at the jail were provided by Sutter-Yuba Behavioral Health. 

Attorneys Joshua Nuni, Lori Rifkin and Dan Stormer assisted Hiscock’s brother and father in filing a federal civil rights lawsuit.

“There was someone who is clearly experiencing a severe mental health crisis and the defendants here locked him in solitary confinement without treatment ... knowing the safety risk that it posed to people in Mr. Hiscock’s position,” said Nuni. “This case is a tragedy that was caused by the jail system’s inability to recognize and deal with mental health issues.” 

“They put him in a horrific rubber room and basically just left him there,” Rifkin added.

Just before Hiscock’s arrest in November 2016, a group of jail prisoners filed a motion to have the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals force Yuba County to improve conditions at the facility. Parts of the Yuba County jail are so old and in such poor repair that employees refer to it as “the dungeon.” The jail had been subject to a court-ordered consent decree since 1979; Sheriff Steve Darfor attempted to have the decree dismissed but failed, first at the trial level and then again in 2016 before the Ninth Circuit. 

Yuba County agreed in August 2018 to make significant changes to improve mental health care at the jail, including with respect to suicide prevention.

“I think everyone, including the county of Yuba, would agree that Bertram Hiscock’s death was tragic,” said Gay Grunfeld, the lead attorney representing the prisoners in the consent decree case.

The lawsuit over Hiscock’s suicide settled in October 2018 for $1 million, inclusive of attorney fees and costs. See: Estate of Bertram Hiscock v. County of Yuba, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:17-cv-02706-JAM-GGH. 

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Additional sources: Sacramento Bee, www.hadsellstormer.com

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