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Parents sue Ga. corrections department, others over transgender inmate’s 2017 suicide

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 9:46 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 23, 2021 at 6:18 PM CDT
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WALB) - Two parents are suing the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) over a transgender inmate’s suicide.

Born “Caleb” Mitchell and named “Jenna” in the lawsuit, GDC says she hung herself in a Valdosta State Prison (VSP) cell.

Mitchell died at the hospital a few days later.

WALB only has access to Mitchell’s mugshot from Union County Jail. We asked her parents’ attorneys for more photos and haven’t heard back.

GDC reported that inmate Caleb Mitchell died by suicide in December 2017. In the lawsuit filed...
GDC reported that inmate Caleb Mitchell died by suicide in December 2017. In the lawsuit filed by Mitchell's parents, they are referred to as Jenna Mitchell. WALB only has access to Mitchell's mugshot from Union County Jail. We asked her parents' attorneys for more photos and haven't heard back.(WALB)

The four defendants in the lawsuit are GDC, the warden at the time, Don Blakely, a correctional officer at the time, James Igou, and the Georgia Board of Regents.

The regents board is named because it manages Augusta University’s program called Georgia Correctional Healthcare, which provides health care for inmates, including mental health care.

Court documents show Mitchell was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to robbery by intimidation in Union County in 2015.

In their lawsuit, Mitchell’s parents claim she died while in VSP because the prison and its employees failed to keep her safe.

They believe that violated her rights under the constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit said Mitchell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and gender dysphoria and had a history of hurting herself.

Her parents said in the lawsuit they believe prison staff knew this and knew she intended to commit suicide on December 4, 2017.

The lawsuit focuses a lot on what happened between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m. that day.

Around 1:30 p.m., the suit says Mitchell asked an attendant to find corrections officer, James Igou, and a sergeant, Wallace Richardson.

Richardson is not named as a defendant in the current version of the lawsuit, but he was named as a defendant in the original version filed with the court.

The lawsuit said Igou went to Mitchell’s cell and saw a noose around her neck.

The suit accuses Igou of taunting her and encouraging her to commit suicide.

Around 1:35 p.m., they say Igou walked away, and at least one other inmate told him Mitchell was committing suicide.

They say he laughed and shouted that she should wait until he got back because he “wanted to see.”

Before he returned, the lawsuit says Mitchell hanged herself.

Meanwhile, Igou told the sergeant that Mitchell intended to commit suicide, and an inmate told the sergeant Mitchell was hanging in her cell.

Around 1:40 p.m., the lawsuit implies Igou and the sergeant took their time getting back to the cell. A minute later, they say Igou left, and the sergeant stood outside the open cell door a few feet from where Mitchell’s body was hanging. Around 1:45, the suit says Richardson closed Mitchell’s cell, locked it, and walked away.

Two minutes later, Igou, the sergeant, and another officer walked back. At some point between 1:47 and 1:54 p.m., the lawsuit says Igou and Richardson handcuffed Mitchell. Around 1:54 p.m., Mitchell’s parents say she was cut down.

Records from Lowndes County show a 911 call was made around 1:57 p.m., apparently from a staff member.

This is a transcript of that call:

Caller: “What time is it? 1357. Okay, okay.”

Dispatcher: “Lowndes County 911, where is your emergency?”

Caller: “Hey, can I get an ambulance dispatched to Valdosta State Prison?”

Dispatcher: “Okay. What’s the address there?”

Caller: “It’s 3259 Val Tech Road.”

Dispatcher: “Okay. Is this the main prison?”

Caller: “Yes. Come in by the tower. I’m not sure of the nature of the emergency, but everybody’s running. So, we need them like real fast.”

Dispatcher: “You need an ambulance?”

Caller: “Yes, but I’m not sure why.”

Dispatcher: “You don’t know any patient information?”

Caller: “No, I don’t. I just heard them call it over the radio, to call 911, like 1018.”

Dispatcher: “We’re going to have to know what’s going on at some point.”

Caller: “Unresponsive. Unresponsive. They’re doing CPR.”

Dispatcher: “Okay, well there’s a difference between CPR and somebody unresponsive. So, they’re not breathing?”

Caller: “Okay, they’re doing CPR. I’m watching them. They’re doing CPR.”

Dispatcher: “Okay, you’ve got a ‘code blue.’”

Caller: “Yeah.”

Dispatcher: “Okay. We’ll get them on the way.”

Mitchell was pronounced dead at the hospital two days later.

The lawsuit accuses officers of intentionally discriminating against Mitchell by not giving her medical care during the suicide attempt and by putting her in a cell with dangerous materials.

They say she was in solitary confinement and not on suicide watch when the suicide attempt happened.

Among other claims, the plaintiffs state that according to the correctional officers’ training, two of the highest priorities in this situation are watching the inmate and, if they are hanging, lifting their body to alleviate pressure on the neck and prevent strangulation.

The lawsuit claims Igou and Richardson did neither.

The suit said Igou did not send for help when he saw a noose around her neck.

In a deposition, the warden admitted Igou should have radioed for help, stayed and kept an eye on the inmate.

In another deposition, Igou testified that he walked away because Jenna expressed that “in order to de-escalate the situation, he had to go get the sergeant.”

He said the inmate did have the noose around her neck but made him feel comfortable enough to leave because she told him she would let him go get the sergeant.

He said in the deposition that it was a judgment call, and he did what he felt was the best way to help Jenna.

He said he didn’t radio for help because he had a problem with his radio that day and it was hit or miss.

The lawsuit claims Valdosta State Prison staff should have done more to prevent Mitchell's...
The lawsuit claims Valdosta State Prison staff should have done more to prevent Mitchell's suicide.(WALB)

In a separate deposition, Igou said he didn’t remember whether he had tried to radio for the sergeant.

He testified that the radio problem had been an ongoing issue, saying they had complained about it to the shift and lockdown supervisor multiple times.

The lawsuit also said the prison had no “cut down” tool to cut through sheets or ligatures in the solitary confinement area where Mitchell was, so they say it took a long time to remove the ligature.

The plaintiffs said in the suit that they believe all these actions could have kept Mitchell alive.

Mitchell’s parents also maintain that she was denied adequate mental health treatment.

They say she was frequently attacked by other inmates and officers.

The former warden, Blakely, and former correctional officer, Igou, both formally asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit against them, citing qualified and sovereign immunity as state employees.

Both Blakely and Igou deny willful or malicious misconduct and malice or reckless indifference.

WALB News 10 reached out to attorneys for all four defendants.

Attorneys for GDC and Igou declined to comment due to pending litigation.

Through open records requests with GDC, WALB Investigates found that Igou was fired a few weeks later after investigators found bottles containing human feces.

His employment records showed staff said he confiscated them from inmates and said he intended to use them to “spray” feces on prisoners if one sprayed feces on him.

This is mentioned in the lawsuit, but Igou’s attorneys claim this is “irrelevant.”

We did not receive a response from Blakely’s attorneys.

WALB reached out to attorneys on file for Richardson as well, although he is no longer a defendant on the lawsuit.

We did not receive a response. We attempted to contact GDC’s ombudsman multiple times and did not receive a response.

Back in July, WALB had been in contact with Mitchell’s parents’ attorneys to set up an interview about their lawsuit.

However, they have failed to respond to at least five phone calls and four emails over the last two months.

We also attempted to speak with the ACLU of Georgia which has an attorney representing the plaintiffs, but they have not followed through with setting up an interview, after multiple requests via email and phone.

DOJ announces statewide investigation into treatment of inmates in Georgia prisons

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it is investigating whether inmates’ constitutional rights are systemically being violated within Georgia’s state prisons.

“We have been looking at Georgia prisons for years,” said, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.(WALB)

Clarke said they found “significant justification” to open the statewide investigation.

“This investigation will be comprehensive but will focus on harm to prisoners resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner violence,” Clarke explained.

The announcement said some concerns are countless violent inmate assaults and deaths, the use of solitary confinement and extreme staffing shortages.

“We must ensure the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated.” Clarke said.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary said it’s unconstitutional for inmates to be allowed to violently assault other inmates.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary said it's unconstitutional...
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary said it's unconstitutional for inmates to be allowed to violently assault other inmates.(WALB)

“Our criminal justice system must allow wrongdoers to serve their sentences in a safe and civilized environment,” Leary explained during the press conference last week. “In fact, that’s a constitutional guarantee.”

DOJ also said it is continuing an investigation into sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff in Georgia prisons.

That investigation was launched in 2016.

Alison Ganem is a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta.

SCHR is not involved in the Mitchell lawsuit, but the organization advocates against poor conditions in jails and prisons.

“I think the bottom line is that any person and particularly people with psychiatric disabilities should not be held in solitary confinement,” Ganem said. “This shouldn’t be something that we use to punish people or a manner in which we confine people. It’s not safe, and in fact, it’s actively harmful.”

Alison Ganem is a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta....
Alison Ganem is a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta. SCHR is not involved in the Mitchell lawsuit, but the organization advocates against poor conditions in jails and prisons.(WALB)

Ganem said SCHR noticed a recent increase in homicides and suicides in Georgia Prisons.

“I think the fact that the federal government has determined that federal intervention is necessary and warranted at this scale is really an indication of the scope of the problem and the scope of the solution that is needed,” Ganem explained.

WALB Investigates has been looking deeper into suicide trends within Georgia prisons.

Throughout the next several weeks, stay tuned as we work to uncover what could be leading to these suicides and what advocates say should change to prevent inmates’ deaths.

Copyright 2021 WALB. All rights reserved.

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