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Arizona Grandmother Sues After Being Jailed and Forced to Drink From Toilet

Tamara Barnicoat was having a psychotic episode on October 10, 2019. Police had twice been called to a business where she was yelling, “I am God.” On a third call, to a car wash where she continued to proclaim her deification and threw a cup of water she thought was poisoned at the car wash attendant, police arrested her and took her to the Gila County Jail.

During booking, it was clear Barnicoat was psychotic and delusional. She gave her name as “God,” but with her correct Social Security number. She continued to yell, “I am God,” and mumble incoherently.

Instead of obtaining mental health services for Barnicoat, deputies forced her to disrobe and placed her in a filthy, windowless concrete holding cell. The next day, she was taken to court for an initial appearance. She was nearly naked and not wearing the shoes, socks, panties, pants, or sweatshirt she had on at the time of her arrest. The only clothing she was wearing was a light blue shirt.

When the deputies came to take Barnicoat to her initial appearance, which was by video link, she did not understand what was happening. She told them, “I’m not going anywhere with you. You’ll have to kill me first. Fuck you.”

Instead of seeking mental health care for Barnicoat or assuring her she would not be harmed, six members of the jail staff gang tackled her and violently forced her into a restraint chair. They placed a blanket over her and wheeled her into the jail’s chapel for her initial appearance.

It was clear to the judge that Barnicoat was suffering from mental illness. She was “yelling” and “making noises” and unresponsive to the judge’s questions. He assigned her counsel and ordered an immediate mental health evaluation. Instead of obeying the judge’s order, deputies wheeled Barnicoat back to the holding cell.

Jail Sgt. Dustin Burdess cut off the water to the cell, rendering it a “dry cell.” The water in a dry cell is supposed to be restored briefly every two hours to allow the prisoner to flush the toilet and drink water. But Burdess never logged that he was making the cell a “dry cell,” so none of the jail staff knew to turn on the water periodically.

Three days later, Deputy Brook Griffin noticed that Barnicoat was still nearly naked in her cell and there was an overpowering smell of urine coming from it. She investigated and discovered that Barnicoat had been without water since her arrest and had been forced to drink from the fouled toilet. Further, she had not been given a jail uniform, an opportunity to shower, hygiene supplies, or a clean towel. Griffin supplied all of those to her, then noted it down in a report. She also noted that her “dry cell” status had not been logged and she had not seen any medical or mental health personnel.

Barnicoat was released 27 days later, as no charges had been filed against her. Arizona law requires a prisoner be immediately released from jail if charges are not filed within 48 hours.

On February 7, 2020, Gila County Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd and Jail Commander Justin Solberg gave an interview to ABC Channel 15 investigative reporter Melissa Blasius during which they admitted Barnicoat’s civil rights had been violated. Five weeks later, a deputy went to Barnicoat’s home and convinced her to sign a “Release of all Claims.” Barnicoat, who has a fourth-grade reading ability, did not understand the form, but was pressured into signing it and accepting a check for $7,500, which she eventually returned.

Represented by Phoenix attorney Robert Campos of Robert J. Campos & Associates and Peoria, Arizona attorney Kevin Garrison of the Garrison Law Firm, Barnicoat filed a Notice of Claim with the Gila County Attorney’s Office on April 3, 2020. On April 29, 2020, that office filed criminal charges against Barnicoat for misdemeanor assault and trespass, and misdemeanor disorderly conduct. The office then had the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office take over the case due to conflicts. They promptly dismissed all charges.

The attorneys helped Barnicoat file a state civil action alleging civil rights violations and state statutory violations and torts.

“Most people who are in jail are presumed innocent, they haven’t been convicted of anything. And they’re just starting the process in the criminal justice system. We should expect some basic human rights and civil rights to be protected,” said Campos, who noted that the lawsuit was not about a big payout but about correcting a big injustice. “I have not encountered a case where the inmate who’s presumed innocent and has no charges has to resort to drinking out of a toilet. And I have never encountered a case where the sheriff on television confesses that he did in fact violate the inmate’s rights.”

“I want them to change things at the jail because it was so devastating,” said Barnicoat, who admitted considering suicide because of the severity of the conditions in which she was held. See: Barnicoat v. Gila County, Case No. 2:2020-cv-02260, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.). 


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Related legal case

Barnicoat v. Gila County