The Washington Post is reporting on a lawsuit filed in federal court for the the death of Larry Price — a 51 year old man who was permitted to starve to death in the Sebastian County, Arkansas Jail. The case is being handled by the Seattle law offices of Budge & Heipt.
Price’s relatives allege in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed Friday in an Arkansas federal court that Price, who was unhoused and lived with severe mental illness, was allowed to starve to death over a year in pretrial detention due to neglect by jail staff and its private health contractor. It names the jail, Turn Key Health Clinics and several staffers — both named and unnamed — as defendants.
An administrator with the Sebastian County Jail said in a statement Friday it had medical personnel available to treat inmates in need of care and was conducting an internal review of Price’s case. Representatives for Turn Key Health Clinics did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the complaint.
To Price’s family, his death is especially painful because of how easily it could have been avoided — starting with the decision to put a man with schizophrenia into a system that was never designed to treat him and then holding him without trial for a year over the $100 bail he couldn’t afford. The pain is compounded, they say, by details like the dozens of prison logs that suggest either no one was watching or no one cared as he wasted away, the logs that continued to list him as “OK” — even after he had died.
The family’s attorney, Erik Heipt, whose Seattle-based practice Budge and Heipt specializes in wrongful death and police brutality, called Price’s death one of the worst he’d seen in almost 20 years of handling these cases.
Price is among the 1,200 people known to have died in local jails, according to 2019 figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 2022 Senate subcommittee on investigations report indicated the figures are a significantly uncounted, and watchdogs, reform groups and lawmakers have noted long-standing problems with collecting accurate data.
Though the specifics of Price’s case are more unique — his autopsy lists his cause of death as “acute dehydration and malnutrition” — jails and the broader criminal legal system have struggled with how to address health needs of detainees, particularly those with mental illness.
“There’s this overarching point that Larry Price didn’t belong in jail,” Heipt said, arguing Price was “essentially jailed for being in a mental health crisis.”
In August of 2020, Price walked into a police station in Fort Smith, Ark., and began acting erratically, at one point mimicking shooting a gun with his fingers and verbally threatening officers, according to the complaint.
Family said he was well-known to those in the community and would bounce around between shelters, sometimes visiting an aunt who lived in the area for a meal or shower. Price’s brother, who lives in California, would call and check on him to keep tabs on his whereabouts. They said he was well-known to local police as well, as officers were often the ones to find Price, who had schizophrenia, in the throes of a mental health crisis.
On that day, officers decided taking him to the jail would be in his best interest, according to the lawsuit. Price was booked on a first-degree felony charge of making terroristic threats.
His bail was set at $1,000, meaning he needed to post just $100 for his release, but he didn’t have the money. He would spend the next year in the jail, largely confined alone in a cell, until his death in August 2021.
Price’s family said they began to worry when they weren’t able to locate him and when he didn’t show up at his aunt’s house in Fort Smith; they were unaware that he had been jailed. Iris Price said when they called the jail to ask if he was there, staff wouldn’t confirm his status or allow them to leave information for Price, saying he would have to reach out to them to connect.
The Sebastian County Jail did not respond to questions about the Price’s claim or clarify protocol for next of kin seeking to share information with detainees.
Jail and health records obtained by The Washington Post, which include interviews with jail staff after Price’s death, show Price exhibited repeated signs of acute mental health distress: He would become agitated, eat his own feces, eat the Styrofoam boxes his food came in and refuse to take his medication.
Nearly five months after he was detained, Price requested a medical visit because he was “sick and had lost a lot of weight,” according to the complaint. Jail and health staffers noticed Price was visibly thinner, having dropped more than 30 pounds since his intake. But even as he continued to lose weight and act more erratically, Price was not moved to a facility that would be able to care for his specific mental health and physical needs, the complaint said.
Due to his mental health issues, Price spent much of his year in pretrial detention in segregated housing, which requires well-being checks every 15 minutes. Heipt said jail staffers were either falsifying the reports and not checking on him, or ignoring his deteriorating condition.
According to the complaint, staff logged more than 4,000 entries for well-being checks between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2021, when he died with the same entry, “Inmate and Cell OK.” Ten more identical entries were logged after Price had been pronounced dead.
Timothy Edgemon, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology who studies corrections at Auburn University said there are established standards of care for detainees and prisoners in the corrections system. But in many cases, the best path begins with keeping severely mentally ill people out of a system never designed to serve them in the first place.
Unlike prisons that are housing people long-term while they serve out sentences, jails are often full of people like Price who haven’t been convicted of anything but are too poor to afford bail as they await their day in court. And unlike state and federal prisons, the obligations for providing long-term health care in local jails is murky and under-resourced.
“The main problem that we always encounter in a county jail is that from its outset, it cannot handle that kind of case [like Price],” Edgemon said. “In an ideal system, we’d have another space designed to handle someone who’s that much in need of help.”
Rural jails are especially ill-equipped to handle mentally ill populations, Edgemon added. In the past decade, some jurisdictions have established so-called mental health courts where the court can identify forms of treatment not typically available through a local jail system.
Heipt, the Price’s attorney, said the case “represents everything that’s wrong with the cash bail system because it punishes the poor.”
Heipt also criticized local jails that rely on private health companies to care for inmates. He cited previous cases in which companies trimmed operating costs by understaffing or not keeping key personnel on-site.
“A big part of it is about money, and when the people you put in charge essentially see inmates as dollar signs, it’s a system that’s bound to fail,” Heipt said.
The complaint argues the staff’s actions violated Price’s constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment and seeks a jury trial.
Price’s family hopes the lawsuit will provide answers. His relatives have unique insight into health and corrections protocols, including for detainees with mental health or disability issues: Iris Price is a nurse, while Rodney Price is a retired corrections officer in California.
“It was negligence. This shouldn’t have happened,” Iris Price said. She added that since Larry’s death in August 2021, the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, told the family they didn’t do anything wrong. “But we hear that so much, especially when it involves someone struggling with mental health.”