by David M. Reutter
A lawsuit filed in federal court for the Western District of Arkansas on January 13, 2023, makes a stunning claim: That a man was left to starve to death in jail because he couldn’t afford bail.
Larry Eugene Price, Jr., 50, was suffering an acute mental health crisis when he walked into Fort Smith Police Department (FSPD) on August 19, 2020. Arrested there on a charge of “terroristic threatening,” he was unable to make his $1,000 bail and confined at the Sebastian County Jail (SCJ). There, just over a year later, Price was found dead in his cell on August 29, 2021. The cause of death: acute dehydration and malnutrition.
When the 6’2” Price was arrested, he was a slender but well-nourished 185 pounds. He walked into FSPD “almost every day – often several times a day,” according to the complaint filed on his behalf, which added: “It was not unusual for him to be agitated and irrational or to engage in bizarre behavior during the visits.”
On the day of his arrest, efforts to calm Price down failed. “He yelled and cursed at officers and shouted incoherently,” the complaint recalled. “At some point, he held out his plainly empty hand as if he was holding a gun and used his index finger to pull an imaginary trigger while verbally threatening officers.”
For his wellbeing and that of others, Price was arrested. But his charge was “terroristic threatening in the first degree,” a felony. That pushed his bail to $1,000. Since he could not post such a hefty bond, he remained in jail.
“This case represents everything that’s wrong with the cash bail system,” said Erik Heipt, a Seattle attorney representing Price’s estate. “It punishes the poor. He was essentially jailed for being in a mental health crisis. He didn’t hurt anyone. If anything, he was the one who needed help. Instead of getting him that help, they took him to jail and locked him in solitary confinement for a year. This was colossal systemic breakdown.”
Price suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, with a long history of involuntary commitments in state and county mental hospitals. Once at SCJ, he was under the care of the jail’s privately contracted medical vendor, Turn Key Health Clinics. He was moved into isolation after booking due to his “current level of thinking.” Unsurprisingly, isolation had a negative impact on Price. Despite finding him “actively psychotic,” Dr. Jawaun Lewis abruptly discontinued Price’s mental health medications on November 24, 2020, saying that Price refused to take them. Dr. Lewis made no further evaluation of Price thereafter.
Throughout June and July 2021, Price degraded mentally and physically. He was not consuming enough food or water to sustain human life. He was living in squalor and eating his own feces. His appearance became skeletal.
Price was found unresponsive in his cell, lying in a pool of water and urine, which prevented the use of a defibrillator due to concerns over safety of responding paramedics. They estimated Price weighed 90 pounds and said he appeared “very malnourished.” His fingers and toes were “wilted” from being “submerged in standing water for a long period of time. Price was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital.
His estate named numerous defendants in seeking compensatory damages. Heipt and fellow attorney Edwin Budge of Budge & Heipt PLLC are providing representation. The case has been set for trial in May 2024, and PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Price v. Turn Key Health Clinics, USDC (W.D. Ark.), Case no. 2:23-cv-02008.
Additional source: Newsweek
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