The Huffington Post is reporting on a jail death case being handled by Budge & Heipt in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The case involves the death of Joshua McLemore, who died following his confinement in the Jackson County Jail, located in Seymour, Indiana.
From the Huffington Post, April 12, 2023:
When 29-year-old Joshua McLemore stopped answering his mother’s calls and texts, she started to worry. McLemore had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult, and he had struggled with psychosis and drug use for years. When neither his mother, Rhonda McLemore, nor a family friend had heard from him for a few days, the apartment manager in McLemore’s building agreed to stop by. He found McLemore naked on the floor, confused and incoherent.
McLemore was taken to the hospital in an ambulance around 1 a.m. on July 20, 2021. But instead of receiving medical treatment, he was soon arrested and moved to Indiana’s Jackson County Jail. There, he was left in a padded isolation cell with no bed, sink or toilet. He spent nearly every hour of the next 20 days in solitary confinement, naked, alone and suffering from active psychosis. At times, his cell was covered with urine, feces, food and trash. By the time jail officials sought medical help for McLemore on Aug. 8, it was too late. He died two days later of “multiple organ failure due to refusal to eat or drink,” according to an autopsy report.
On Wednesday, McLemore’s estate filed a civil lawsuit against Jackson County, jail officials and the private corporation contracted by the jail to provide health care services, accusing the plaintiffs of violating McLemore’s 14th Amendment rights, “causing him unnecessary pain and suffering and, ultimately, an avoidable death.”
McLemore’s “condition was treatable, and his death was preventable,” his estate said in a complaint. “Josh suffered and died because of multiple failures by county staff and supervisors as well as systemic deficiencies and unconstitutional customs, practices, and conditions at the Jackson County Jail.”
McLemore’s deterioration over the course of his time in jail is apparent in hundreds of hours of disturbing surveillance footage obtained by his lawyers, parts of which were filed as exhibits to the lawsuit.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment. Advanced Correctional Healthcare, the private corporation contracted by the jail, said in an email it could not disclose information about McLemore because of patient confidentiality laws.
“Please note ACH does not have specific policies and procedures,” ACH President and CEO Jessica Young wrote in an email. “As a general rule, treatment decisions are made by the medical professionals on a patient-specific basis.”
McLemore was held in pretrial detention and was not convicted of the crime he was accused of committing. Although tragic, McLemore’s death in the care of people responsible for protecting him is not uncommon. The federal government does a poor job tracking jail deaths, but a HuffPost investigation identified 811 people who died in a one-year period between 2015 and 2016. Days before McLemore got to the Jackson County Jail, 23-year-old Ta’Neasha Chappell died after staffers at the same jail ignored her pleas for medical care.
“On any given day, county jails across the United States are holding several hundred thousand men and women behind bars. Many of these people haven’t been convicted of any crime,” said Ed Budge, the lead attorney in McLemore’s case and co-founder of Budge & Heipt, a law firm that specializes in wrongful death cases resulting from police, prison and jail misconduct.
“Once they’re locked up, they can’t go to a medical or mental health professional on their own. They can’t rely on friends, family or neighbors to help them get the care they need,” Budge said. “Instead, they become completely 100% dependent on the people working at the jail to ensure access to the medical or mental health care they require. If that care is denied or unreasonably delayed, the results can be fatal.”
From A Hospital Bed To A Jail Cell
When emergency medical responders arrived at McLemore’s apartment, he appeared disoriented and was unable to answer simple questions, including a request for his name. While in the ambulance, he chewed on the seatbelt of the stretcher. He “was somewhat cooperative as long as he was not touched,” EMTs noted in a report.
McLemore arrived at the hospital around 1:20 a.m. on July 20, 2021. “Patient appears to be having delusions and is sporatic [sic] in his behavior,” a nurse wrote in a separate report. The nurse described his mood as hostile, suspicious, anxious and apprehensive. About a half hour after McLemore got to the emergency room, he got out of his bed and lay down on the floor. When the nurse tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to get up, he pulled on her hair, she wrote in the report.
A hospital security guard who was also a Jackson County Sheriff’s detective told McLemore not to touch the nurse, according to the complaint. Although McLemore complied, the security guard contacted the Seymour Police Department, which sent four officers to the hospital.
Footage from one of the officer’s body cameras shows him asking the nurse how much pain she felt, on a 1-10 scale, when McLemore pulled her hair.
“Six,” the nurse said.
“That’s good enough for me,” the officer responded. “That’s a sign of pain.”
Asked if she wanted to press charges, the nurse appeared unsure but eventually agreed.
The officers cuffed McLemore’s hands behind his back while he lay in the hospital bed. Although McLemore did not resist arrest, the officers shackled his legs together before leading him to the police car, while he was wearing only underwear. He bit a chunk of paint from the door of the police car and, while seated in the front passenger seat, put his feet on the windshield with enough pressure to crack the glass, according to the incident report documenting the arrest.
Rather than noting McLemore’s behavior as a sign of untreated mental illness, the officers charged him with criminal mischief for damaging the car and battery for pulling the nurse’s hair.
Like ‘A Wild Animal In A Cage’
McLemore got to the jail around 2:30 a.m. Jail staff did not take his photograph or fingerprints or conduct a medical or mental health screening, according to the complaint. Instead, McLemore was taken to an empty, padded isolation cell with no bed, sink, toilet or window, lit by fluorescent lights 24 hours a day. He was placed on “medical observation,” which required staff to document their observations of him at least every 15 minutes.
But “Josh was not medically observed,” according to the complaint, which notes that the logs were “incomplete” and not kept at all after about a week. “In fact, he received virtually no medical monitoring or care of any kind throughout his confinement, even as his psychosis persisted and his physical condition worsened.”
Surveillance footage shows three officers carrying McLemore into the cell, pinning him against the wall, removing his handcuffs and ankle shackles and stripping him of his underwear, leaving him completely naked. They left a green smock and a thin blanket on the floor. After they left, McLemore began crawling around the cell on his knees, licking the walls and the floor and speaking incoherently.
Although there was a bathroom attached to the cell, the door was locked nearly the entire time McLemore was there. “There is nothing in the records to indicate that jail staff told Josh there was a bathroom on the other side of that second door until August 3—14 days after he entered the jail— when a staff member opened the bathroom door and left it open for approximately four hours,” the complaint read. “During that time, Josh wandered into the bathroom and rolled around on the floor but did not use the toilet or sink.”
Having no access to a bathroom while in a psychotic state, “Josh would urinate and defecate on his cell floor,” according to the complaint. “He walked barefoot in his own human waste, rolled around in it, and ate food from it. He lay on a urine-covered mat and wrapped himself in a urine-soaked blanket. He did all of this in plain view of the guards who were supposed to be monitoring him every 15 minutes.”
McLemore would spend nearly every hour of his 20 days in the Jackson County Jail alone in that cell. The few times he was removed involved extreme force and restraint, even when he put up no resistance and did not pose a visible threat.
Milton Edward Rutan, a licensed practical nurse at the jail and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, first interacted with McLemore around 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 22, according to the complaint. By then, McLemore had been in isolation for more than 63 hours. Rutan tried to speak with McLemore through the food slot in the cell door but McLemore responded nonsensically. Rutan tossed a bottle of Gatorade through the slot before leaving — “the way one would toss a piece of meat to a wild animal in a cage,” according to the complaint.
The first time McLemore was removed from his cell was on July 25, 2021, after five days in jail. Guards grabbed him, put him in a chokehold, pinned him to the floor facedown and tied his hands behind his back, according to the complaint.
“As Josh lay on the floor, not resisting, the guards put him in a restraint device called the WRAP,” the complaint read. “They bound his legs and ankles together tightly, placed a harness over his head, and strapped the harness to the bottom of the WRAP, forcing him into a sitting position. They then placed a helmet on his head.”
Jail staff returned McLemore to his cell and left him in the WRAP for more than four and a half hours, according to the complaint. “The purported reason for this prolonged restraint was that one guard claimed to have seen Josh on the monitor, punching himself in the head and slapping his stomach,” the complaint read. “However, video from the relevant timeframe does not show Josh doing anything that would cause a reasonable officer to believe he was trying to hurt himself.”
The next time McLemore left the cell was on July 27, when staff decided to shower him and have his cell cleaned. “Having no mental professional at the jail, no treatment plan for Josh, no strategy for his care, and no idea how to safely and humanely engage with a person suffering from psychosis, custody staff resorted to the only tools they had been trained to use: force and restraint,” the complaint read.
Guards entered the cell, pinned McLemore to the floor, tied his hands behind his back and strapped him into a restraint chair, according to the surveillance footage. McLemore does not appear to put up a fight. Rutan, as well as Sheriff Rick Meyer and Jail Commander Chris Everhart — all named defendants — stood by and watched without intervening, according to the complaint.
Then, guards wheeled McLemore into a bathroom and left him under a showerhead, strapped to the chair. At one point, a guard poured paper cups of liquid soap over his body. Around this time, Rutan appeared to try to take McLemore’s vital signs but did not document them, the complaint noted.
McLemore was forcibly removed from the cell again on July 31 for another shower and cell cleaning. This would be his last time leaving the cell for more than a week.
By Aug. 8, 2021, McLemore appeared to be decompensating. He spent most of that day laying down with feces and debris stuck to his body, “which now appeared bony and emaciated compared to his appearance when he arrived at the jail,” according to the complaint.
That day, McLemore left both his breakfast and lunch untouched. “Nobody bothered to check on Josh, or even open the window cover to look inside his cell,” the complaint read. “This was not atypical; it reflected the jail staff’s lack of attention to Josh’s well-being over the entire course of his confinement.”
Around 4 p.m., Rutan called McLemore’s name through the food slot. A guard entered the cell and placed a bottle of Gatorade on the floor. McLemore struggled to reach for it, so Rutan uncapped the bottle and handed it to him. Still, McLemore was too weak to drink. Rutan got a straw and held the bottle to McLemore’s mouth. He drank most of the bottle while lying down, “occasionally letting out a cough or cry between sips,” the complaint read.
Despite McLemore’s visible decline, Rutan did not call an ambulance or even his physician supervisor.
“As Josh lay on his mat, listless and near death, four officers were hanging out at the officer station just a few feet away,” according to the complaint. “One of the officers appeared to be scrolling through his social media on his iPhone.”
About 35 minutes later, a guard entered McLemore’s cell and asked if he could stand. When he couldn’t, two guards dragged his naked body out the door, hoisted him into the restraint chair, and cuffed his wrists to the chair.
Still, they didn’t call an ambulance. Instead, they wheeled McLemore back into the shower while other prisoners cleaned his cell.
Staff wheeled McLemore back to the cell, placed him on a mat and covered him with a blanket.
“You gonna wake up a little bit?” Rutan asked McLemore, who lay motionless.
Moments later, Rutan checked McLemore’s blood sugar level and told the officers it was 232 — well above normal. He also took McLemore’s blood pressure but did not record the results, according to the complaint.
Finally, an officer called an ambulance and EMTs took McLemore back to the hospital. His cell “smelled like old urine and the blanket he was covered up with was covered in urine. There was urine all over the floor,” the EMTs noted in their report. McLemore weighed 153 pounds, down nearly 45 pounds from when he’d arrived less than three weeks prior.
McLemore was diagnosed with hypoxia (low oxygen in body tissues), encephalopathy (brain disease), acute renal failure (kidney damage), hypernatremia (high sodium), and rhabdomyolysis (muscle tissue breakdown). Because of the severity of his illness, he was airlifted to another hospital in Cincinnati, where he was intubated and sedated.
By then, it was too late.
By Tuesday, Aug. 10, McLemore was comatose. Rhonda McLemore flew in from Mississippi and made the decision to withdraw her only child from life support.
‘Just A Good Person’
Susan Wildin met McLemore at a Mardi Gras parade in Long Beach, Mississippi, after he started dating her daughter, Abigail Smith. “He was just very sweet, very kind,” she said. “Just a good person.”
McLemore and Smith moved in together in 2019. “They were clean, they weren’t drinking. They were working out and eating well,” Wildin said. “She just felt so good for the first time in a long time. They were making a new start.”
Later that year, Smith died in a car accident on the way home from work. Wildin and McLemore grew closer after Smith’s sudden death, sharing in their grief. Wildin also became friends with McLemore’s mother, who lived nearby.
The two mothers looked out for McLemore, who struggled with his mental health after his girlfriend’s death. In July 2021, Wildin got a call from Rhonda McLemore.
“Have you heard from Josh? I haven’t heard from him in a couple weeks and I’m getting worried,” his mother said.
Wildin contacted McLemore’s apartment complex, and the person who checked on him put her on the phone with McLemore.
“I said, ‘Josh, do you want us to call somebody to help you?’” Wildin said.
“And he goes, ‘Yes please, call somebody to help me.’”
“That’s when he went to the emergency room that turned into the jail,” Wildin continued.
“He didn’t belong in a jail.”
“Had I not have gotten involved, he wouldn’t have gone to the emergency room that night and gotten into trouble.”
After McLemore died, his mother asked Wildin how to cope with losing a child. “I said, ‘It’s just one day at a time.’ I’m not an expert at it and I don’t want to be. We were both members of the same club that we didn’t choose to be in.”
After McLemore’s death, the Indiana State Police conducted an investigation into the case and sent its findings to the office of Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jeffrey Chalfant, who ultimately declined to press criminal charges. McLemore “most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention by Jackson County Jail staff as a group,” Chalfant wrote last June, but “no single person committed an act or omission that constituted a crime.”
McLemore’s mother died unexpectedly later that year.
“It was horrible,” Wildin said. “She truly died from a broken heart.”