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Deaths at Georgia Jail Spur Investigations, Lawsuit

by Ed Lyon

Shali Tilson, 22, had struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia since he was eight years old. His conditions were managed by medication, though due to their adverse side effects he stopped taking them during high school. He appeared to be successfully coping through a combination of diet and exercise. Tilson was enrolled in the Rhode Island Community College’s paralegal studies program but had taken a break, returning to Rockdale County, Georgia in order to provide care for his father, who had suffered a stroke.

While taking care of his father, Tilson’s mental conditions began to re-manifest. Ignoring his family’s requests that he seek help for his deteriorating mental health, he continued to worsen until he was arrested for disorderly conduct after trying to kick in a door at an apartment building that he and his family had recently vacated. His mother said Tilson had taken too much responsibility on his shoulders and was on the verge of a “psychotic break.” The police officer who transported Tilson to jail thought he was on drugs. Although a urine sample was taken, it was never tested and eventually was thrown away.

Someone realized there was a problem, though, because Tilson was ordered to be put on suicide watch and moved to a padded cell as a result. The commitment form was never completed, and one of the lines left blank was for the name of the person who ordered the move and placement on suicide watch. Although detainees on suicide watch are supposed to be visually observed every 15 minutes, the logs concerning Tilson’s observations appeared to have been forged, unlike the six uses of force by jailers during the last nine days of his life.

Those days were spent in a 5’ by 9’ cell with a steel outer door equipped with a viewing port and a rectangular door to pass food trays in and out. He had no running water, sink or bunk, and the toilet was covered by a grate.

Although Tilson’s autopsy would show the effects of the force used by jail guards, it was lack of water – dehydration – that ultimately caused the blood clots in his lungs that killed him in March 2018. Two skull injuries attendant with bleeding in his brain, foot and ankle contusions, and abdominal marks from the uses of force were noted on the postmortem, although they were listed as unlikely to have contributed to his death. The cause of death was listed as “undetermined.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2019, p.63].

Surveillance video from Tilson’s cell showed him continuously pushing the emergency call button, begging for help before he lay down amid a pile of trash and died. The call button had not worked for some time. Video of the area outside his cell showed that jail staff did not perform visual checks on Tilson at the required 15-minute intervals for hours before his death. His body was entering rigor mortis before guards entered his cell.

A special grand jury was convened to investigate. Its 84-page report, released in September 2019, found that Tilson’s death was preventable and primarily caused by staff complacency and failure to follow established jail policies and procedures. Sgt. Dan Lang was singled out as the jailer who forged visual check logs, and he was recommended for a criminal grand jury investigation. Four other guards were suspended without pay for a short time. Mawuli Mel Davis, an Atlanta attorney representing Tilson’s family, noted that it would have taken at least three days without water to die from dehydration.

Several months after Tilson’s death, on May 27, 2018, Rockdale County jailers ignored a female detainee until she died, too. Jamie Krischelle Henry, a 40-year-old mother, was being detained on a probation violation warrant. Despite exhibiting symptoms related to narcotics withdrawal and asking for help, guards allowed her to die from cocaine and morphine complications. Davis is also representing Henry’s family.

According to a February 8, 2019 news report, the families of Henry and Tilson, in conjunction with human rights and civil rights groups, have asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate their deaths at the jail.

“I know it is ultimately the desire of the families for a DOJ investigation to take place, and quite frankly, we have no problem with that,” stated Rockdale County District Attorney Alisha Johnson. “Our responsibility is distinct and separate from what the DOJ traditionally would investigate.”

She added, in explanation: “Ultimately, the job of the D.A.’s office is to conduct criminal investigations and to determine if criminal activity has taken place as opposed to negligence. At this time we have not reached a formal conclusion regarding those deaths.”

Meanwhile, Tilson’s family has filed suit in federal court.

“My son begged them not to let him die this way, he knew that he was dying,” said Tilson’s mother. “They continued to sit there and let him stay in that room with no water, no food and no medical attention. Outraged and upset is an understatement for what we’re feeling right now. Our son was tortured in that jail.” 



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