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Suit: Mississippi Man Sentenced to Two Days Hangs Himself After Jail Kept Him 52 Days Longer

After he lost work and was unable to pay a fine, Robert Wayne Johnson was sentenced to the Keller Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility (KNRCF) in rural Kemper County, Mississippi, on November 16, 2017. The father of five had struggled with mental health problems, including two suicide attempts. Though his sentence was just two days long, he was still in jail 54 days later, when he hanged himself with his shoelaces and died on January 8, 2018.

On September 30, 2019, his widow, LaToya Johnson, filed suit against Kemper County, the Kemper County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), and several correctional officers. Her suit alleges that her husband was unlawfully held past his release date, was not provided with mental health care, and was not properly monitored after he became suicidal.

According to his widow, Johnson — a Meridian resident who had worked at the city library, East Mississippi State Hospital and Tower Automotive — had been institutionalized at least twice. The suit alleges that his mental health issues were ignored by KNRCF employees, in spite of his history and repeated warnings from other prisoners that Johnson had been tying shoelaces around his neck in the days prior to his death. They said he had begun to panic when he wasn’t released and feared he had been mistakenly sentenced on a felony charge.

Hours before he died, Johnson slit his wrists. He was bandaged, but almost immediately got into an altercation with another prisoner who had reported the suicide attempt. He was then allegedly placed in an unmonitored segregation cell, where he hanged himself 14 minutes later.

“This case demonstrates how too many people who need to be receiving community-based mental health services instead wind up in local jails where officers are not adequately trained to provide the care and protection required by law,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, who filed the suit on behalf of Johnson’s widow.

“Jail is not therapy. It is not where they belong,” agreed Kemper County Sheriff James Moore.

Recent statistics show the suicide rate in local jails is 2.5 times the rate in state prisons and over three times the rate in the general population. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails. See LaToya Johnson v. Kemper County Mississippi, et al., U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case no. 3:2019-cv-00700. 


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Related legal case

LaToya Johnson v. Kemper County Mississippi, et al.