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$2.2 Million Settlement Over Transgender Georgia Prisoner’s Suicide Is Largest in State DOC History

by Matt Clarke

On December 7, 2021, the parents of a 25-year-old transwoman who committed suicide while imprisoned in the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) dismissed their federal civil rights lawsuit against DOC officials after accepting a $2.2 million settlement the preceding October 27. See: Maree v. Igou, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 234131 (M.D. Ga.).

The deceased prisoner, Caleb “Jenna” Mitchell, suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and gender dysphoria. Mitchell had been medically approved for sex reassignment surgery, but she was incarcerated in a men’s prison while serving up to 10 years for a 2015 robbery conviction. Mitchell also had a history of self-harm and suicide attempts.

Around November 19, 2017, Mitchell was told she was being transferred to the compound for transgender prisoners. But instead, she was placed in solitary confinement. On December 4, 2017, she told guard James Lee Roy Igou she was about to hang herself and, according to a prisoner who was working in the area as an orderly, Igou taunted her, saying, “OK, what are you waiting for, go for it.” A few minutes later, he walked away, and she yelled, “Don’t leave me!”

Video surveillance recorded Igou walking off and, soon thereafter, the orderly checking Mitchell’s cell, finding her hanging by a bedsheet tied to a ventilation grill with her feet dangling above the ground. According to a declaration by the orderly, he immediately ran to find guard Sgt. Wallace L. Richardson and informed him that Mitchell had hanged herself. The orderly said the guard smirked and laughed at the news.

The video recording shows Richardson and Igou arriving at the cell, and then they walked away, not returning for more than ten minutes. Michell was eventually cut down and taken to a hospital, where she remained in a coma until she died two days later.

Her parents, Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva, filed a federal lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court for the Middle District of Georgia, accusing Richardson, Igou and Valdosta State Prison warden Don Blakley of deliberate indifference to Mitchell’s serious medical needs, as well as a denial of Plaintiff’s access to courts with an allegedly false incident report prepared by Richardson and approved by Blakely to cover up Igou’s misconduct.

Maree and Spiva were initially represented by attorney Craig T. Jones of Washington, Georgia, before the case was taken over by attorneys David B. Shanies and Deborah Ingrid Francois of New York City, as well as Andres M. Lopez Delgado, Rahul Garabadu and Sean Jengwei Young of Atlanta. After a great deal of extended discovery, the action was nearly three years old on September 21, 2021, when the Court granted Plaintiffs one last discovery extension and set trial for February 7, 2022. See: Maree v. Igou, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179366 (M.D. Ga.). After that, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement.

According to Shanies, DOC conducted a “superficial” investigation that resulted in a recommendation that DOC staff be retrained on prisoner suicide.

“The lack of any meaningful investigation was shocking and inexcusable,” said Shanies. “Prison guards stood by and let a person die in front of their eyes.”

Added the attorney: “It is deeply unsettling.”

There have long been allegations of prisoner abuse in the Georgia DOC, especially abuse of transgender prisoners. In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a statewide investigation into violence, homicides, and sexual abuse of gay and transgender prisoners by staff and prisoners in the state. Kristen Clarke, who heads DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said the investigation would also address abusive conditions caused by “prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training, and the lack of accountability.”

The $2.2 million settlement in this case was even larger than the last seven-figure wrongful death payout by DOC. In 2016 the agency paid $1.2 million to settle a suit over the December 1999 death of Thomas M. Fitzgerald, who was strapped to a bed in an isolation cell. As part of this agreement, the parties will cover their own attorney’s fees and costs. See: Maree v. Richardson, USDC (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 7:19-cv-00046.  

Additional source: CNN

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