Tulsa County Jail Death Lawsuit to Proceed to Trial

We have written extensively about the problems facing the Oklahoma County Jail and its federal civil rights lawsuits involving insufficient mental health care and medical care for inmates. Unfortunately, the Oklahoma County Jail is not unique in this regard--not even within the state lines of Oklahoma. In fact, the Tulsa County Jail has also racked up a litany of lawsuits alleging inadequate treatment for inmates, including negligence leading to death. Most recently, a federal judge has ruled that the civil lawsuit involving an inmate who died after sustaining a broken neck and jail staff allegedly ignored his pleas for help.

According to the lawsuit, Owasso police encountered Elliott Williams, 37, at a hotel on October 21, 2011. Williams's family had rented him a room at the hotel after he exhibited "psychological issues" stemming from a separation from his wife.

Initially, Owasso police contacted Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services (COPES) for help, citing a "complete and utter mental breakdown." However, police cancelled the call when Williams refused to comply by sitting on a curb, approaching officers and telling them he wanted them to shoot him. Instead, they used pepper spray to subdue him and took him to the Owasso jail on an obstruction complaint--a misdemeanor.

The lawsuit alleges that Williams continued to appear mentally unstable while at the Owasso jail, behaving violently against himself, screaming, moaning, and rolling around on the floor. Owasso police, knowing the Tulsa County Jail was purportedly better equipped with mental health services, transported Williams to the county facility the following morning.

A jail trusty reportedly witnessed Williams deliberately ramming his head into a holding cell door. Following the incident, Williams fell to the ground, saying that he had broken his neck and could not move. Instead of getting treatment for the seriously injured man, detention officers and a nurse allowed the inmate to lie on the floor for more than 10 hours.

Eventually, the jail staff transported the man to a medical unit cell; however, despite continuing to complain that he could not move, he received no treatment in the medical unit, the lawsuit alleges. According to the lawsuit, a head nurse even told the critically injured man to "quit f-ing faking."

Williams died on October 27, five days after sustaining the injury. He was dehydrated at the time of his death, and the cause of death was ruled to be “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell ruled that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to send the federal civil rights lawsuit to trial. Judge Dowdell overruled requests by Tulsa County officials and then-Sheriff Stanley Glanz for a summary judgment in their favor. The judge did, however, rule in favor of the Owasso Police Department's request for summary judgment, stating that they did not exhibit deliberately indifferent behavior in transporting the mentally ill man to the Tulsa jail: “The OPD officers knew that the jail ostensibly offered mental health services, and those officers cannot be held accountable for the jail’s actual practices or the treatment Mr. Williams ultimately received there.”

Oklahoma jails and prisons have become warehouses for those suffering from mental illness. Without adequate treatment--both mental and physical--an inmates condition is likely to deteriorate rapidly. Until adequate medical and mental health care are available in state prisons, injuries, deaths, and lawsuits will continue.

Image credit: Michael Coghlan

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