Mentally Ill Man Dies, Injured and Alone, in a Tulsa Jail Cell

November 5, 2012 by  

photo of Elliot Earl Williams

In a horrific story out of Oklahoma, lawyers representing the estate of a prisoner who was found dead in the Tulsa Jail have sued the local sheriff’s office and the jail’s private health care provider. In a motion just filed in federal court, attorneys have asked a judge to release a video made of the man’s final two days, during which he allegedly languished in an isolation cell without food, water, or medical attention.

As reported by the Tulsa World:

Elliott Earl Williams, 37, was pronounced dead in his cell at 11:21 a.m. Oct. 27, 2011, after allegedly going days without food and water…

According to the motion seeking release of the video and related documents, Williams–who had exhibited signs of mental illness–tried to hurt himself and ran into a steel door head-first after being placed in a booking cell upon arrival at the jail Oct. 22.

When detention officers and medical personnel refused to treat him, claiming he was faking paralysis, he was left on the floor of the booking cell for 10 hours and soiled himself, the motion states.

He was then transferred by gurney to the jail’s medical unit, where he was dumped in a shower and left for two hours. He was then moved to a medical unit cell, where he was left naked on a steel bunk with only a blanket, the motion states.

Williams remained in the cell, naked, immobile and with only a blanket, for the next three days, according to the motion.

He last ate on the morning of Oct. 23 and last drank any water–”other than a few drops he managed to lick off his fingers”–on the morning of Oct. 24, according to documents cited in the motion.

The next morning, on Oct. 25, Williams was dragged on his blanket to a video-monitored cell, according to the motion. The remaining 51 hours of Williams’ life were videotaped.

 Included on that tape, according to the motion, are numerous instances in which detention officers opened Williams’ cell door and threw Styrofoam food containers onto the floor of the cell.

On Oct. 26, the day before his death, no one entered his cell, according to the motion.

“On one occasion, he attempted to open one of the food containers that had been thrown into his cell the previous day, but his efforts to do so failed,” the motion states. “In the process of trying to open the food container, he spilled the cup of water. The empty cup was still in the cell when Mr. Williams died.”

Just after 8 a.m. Oct. 27, a doctor and a jail nurse found that Williams had little, if any, reflex in his feet. Vomit and saliva had pooled on Williams’ face, but he was provided no additional medical care, according to the motion.

Three hours later, detention officers entered Williams’ cell and found him not breathing and without a pulse.

“As a final demonstration of the complete lack of human respect shown Mr. Williams throughout his jail stay, two of the nurses took a corner of Mr. Williams’ blanket, lifting and pulling on it until Mr. Williams’ dead body was sent sprawling across the floor,” the motion states.

The State Medical Examiner’s Office found that Williams died from “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma” and “also found a pattern of dehydration,” the motion states.

The lawsuit, which claims that Williams’s civil rights were violated, is reportedly “one of several filed by the attorneys alleging inadequate care and supervision in the jail’s medical unit.” Health care in that unit–and throughout the Tulsa Jail–are provided by a private company called Correctional Health Care Management. Lawyers say that if the judge releases the video and other documents, they can show “a pattern of indifference and neglect toward inmates on the part of the Sheriff’s Office and the jail’s health-care provider dating back to 2007.”

In Williams’s case, it was clear by the time he reached the jail that he was seriously mentally ill. Police who arrested him for breaking things at a local Marriott Hotel wrote in the arrest report: ”It was readily apparent that the suspect was having a mental breakdown…The suspect was rambling on about God, eating dirt.” According to the Tulsa World, “At one point, Williams stated that he was going to kill himself that night and asked police to ‘shoot me twice,’ the arrest report states. After officers repeatedly asked Williams to sit down, he said to them, ‘What do I have to do to get you to shoot me?’ and began to approach one of them. Police then used pepper spray to subdue him.”

Williams was arrested on a charge of ”obstructing/interfering with an officer” and taken to the Tulsa Jail. What happened to him once he arrived there is a particularly awful example of what can happen to people with untreated mental illness once they enter the criminal justice system.

(h/t to Prison Legal News for alerting us to this story.)