Many locations are reporting enormous spikes in jail deaths. Locally, Multnomah County has reported seven deaths this year, which is more than the previous five years combined. Too many jail deaths involve inmates who needed essential (and often immediate) medical care but didn’t get it. A federal jail death case to our south (San Bernardino County, California) serves as an important reminder that, when this happens, it’s not simply wrong, it’s also potentially a violation of federal civil rights laws.
The detainee, C.P., was a college student with schizophrenia. After she became pregnant in late 2020, the woman discontinued taking her prescription antipsychotic medication. By March 2021, she had become unstable and attacked her father and a neighbor. The father called 911 and, according to a local news report, warned the responding police officers that his daughter was pregnant and schizophrenic.
The father told a reporter that a deputy assured him that the county jail specialized in “people with mental health conditions.” Within 24 hours, the woman had managed to injure herself. After a trip to the hospital, she was returned to jail. The police told the father that his daughter would be placed in a “safe room” where “she could not harm herself.”
The woman was not restrained inside her cell. After less than a week and a half in jail, the woman attempted suicide. The woman lost the baby and, a few days later, died as a result of the brain damage she suffered from the suicide attempt.
The father sued the county, alleging a federal civil rights violation based on the “inadequate conditions of confinement and medical care.” According to the father’s attorney, the officers “put her in this alleged safe room without restraints knowing it wasn’t safe.”
The father’s federal lawsuit alleged that his daughter “cried, screamed, and yelled for immediate help” after injuring herself, but that jail staff “refused to provide” the woman “with necessary medical care.”
The Elements of a Due Process Claim in a Jail Death Case
That, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Oregon, California, and several other states,) was enough to constitute a viable due process violation claim. As the court stated in overturning a lower court ruling that had dismissed the case, a “pretrial detainee’s medical care claim… under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” must, to succeed, establish: (1) intentional decision-making “with respect to the conditions” of the detainee’s confinement, (2) a “substantial risk of… serious harm” as a result of those conditions, (3) a failure to “take reasonable available measures to abate that risk, even though a reasonable official in the circumstances would have appreciated the high degree of risk involved.”
Refusing to provide a detainee who was known to be pregnant, schizophrenic, and off her schizophrenia medications “with necessary medical care when she cried, screamed, and yelled for immediate help after injuring herself” met all three of those criteria.
The reasons why these tragedies occur vary. Sometimes the jails are understaffed. Sometimes there’s a breakdown in communication among jail employees about the detainee’s medical needs. Sometimes it’s indifference (and occasionally antipathy) on the part of workers toward the detainee and her medical state. In many jails, the task of providing medical care is outsourced to large corporations whose practices and policies focus more on maximizing profits rather than detainees’ health, leaving workers overworked and inmates underserved.
Whatever the reason, when these errors lead to a detainee dying or suffering serious harm, it’s possible those failures constituted a violation of the detainee’s civil rights. These cases are among some of the most complex and challenging in the civil justice system. If you think you lost your loved one due to negligence that occurred while your loved one was incarcerated, you need a powerful and experienced legal advocate. The knowledgeable Oregon civil rights attorneys at Kaplan Law LLC are here to give you the reliable and honest answers you need and, when the circumstances call for it, zealous advocacy to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. Call us today at (503) 226-3844 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.