by Jo Ellen Nott
A lawsuit filed on April 12, 2023, accuses the jail in Indiana’s Jackson County of deliberate indifference to the serious medical need of a detainee who had been held in solitary confinement for 20 days when he died of “multiple organ failure due to refusal to eat or drink with altered mental status due to untreated schizophrenia,” according to the autopsy report.
Joshua McLemore, 29, died in custody on August 20, 2021, emaciated, incoherent, with a blank stare and parts of his body blackened from wasting away in solitary confinement at the Jackson County Jail. He had committed no crime other than pulling an ER nurse’s hair during a mental health crisis.
McLemore had a normal life growing up in southern Mississippi, punctuated by bouts of adolescent mental illness managed by his devoted mother, a member of the U.S. Navy. After high school, McLemore went to a college for a time and liked to read, play chess and video games, and watch sports. In 2021, he moved to Seymour, Indiana, and fell in love with a local girl. But after she died in an automobile accident, McLemore stopped taking the medications which had allowed him to live a relatively stable life.
In the summer of 2021, McLemore’s mother asked his apartment manager to check on her son, after she didn’t hear from him and grew concerned. That call from a worried mom touched of a chain of events: a wellness check by Seymour cops, who took McLemore to the hospital, where his tussle with a nurse landed him in the county lockup on battery charges.
There he was held in a padded cell for 24 hours a day, naked, with no access to the adjacent bathroom and nearly no human contact except meal drops through a slot. He also allegedly reeeived no out-of-cell time as mandated, no medication to mitigate his mental health crisis and no medical treatment for his malnutrition and dehydration. While detained, McLemore rarely slept, ate, or drank.
McLemore’s mother died just 16 months after her son. In the civil rights complaint filed in federal court for the Southern District of Indiana on behalf of his estate, attorney Edwin Budge noted that the young man slept only 15 hours total during his 20-day jail stay. He behaved unpredictably, destroying food bags delivered through the slot in his cell door or dumping food on the floor. At times he ate the food mixed with his own feces. When he was not silent, McLemore shouted randomly, laughed for no reason, spouted gibberish, made bizarre sounds and occasionally barked like a dog. But guards and medical staff allegedly remained indifferent, disregarding jail policy and ignoring the fact that the young man had begun an unstoppable descent into death.
The autopsy report also cited McLemore’s history of methamphetamine withdrawal as a contributing cause of death. But his unnecessary demise was not a one-off for the Jackson County Jail. Four days prior to McLemore’s arrival at the lockup, another pretrial detainee died “as a result of the same practices,” McLemore’s complaint reads. Ta’Neasha Chappell, 23, vomited blood for 16 hours while begging for medical care and then died from “still undetermined” causes. Chappell’s family has also filed a federal lawsuit accusing jail staff of violating her Eighth Amendment rights with “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The U.S. penal system was never intended to treat mentally ill individuals, nor is it equipped to do so. But in 44 states, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a jail or prison holds more people suffering mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. As a result, U.S. citizens with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a hospital bed. Meanwhile claims of medical neglect and mistreatment in jails nationwhide are multiplying at an alarming rate.
Among the defendants in McLemore’s lawsuit is the jail’s Tennessee-based private medical contractor, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc (ACH). With contracts in more than 370 prisons and jails across 21 states, ACH is responsible for the physical and mental health of more than 34,600 incarcerated people. The president and CEO of ACH declined to discuss McLemore’s case with the press, citing federal health privacy and confidentiality laws.
Jackson County prosecuting attorney Jeffrey Chalfant did not find that any jail employee committed a crime in relation to McLemore’s death. But he allowed that the death was “most likely due to a prolonged lack of attention by Jackson Jail staff as a group.”
The lawsuit alleges that “Josh suffered and died because of multiple failures by county staff and supervisors, as well as systemic deficiencies and unconstitutional customs, practices, and conditions at the Jackson County Jail.”
“His condition was treatable,” the suit concludes, “and his death was preventable.” See: Est. of McLemore v. Jackson Cty., USDC (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 4:23-cv-00057.
Additional source: The Appeal, USA Today
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