News Article Details

Medical records: Inmate who died in New Orleans jail had lengthy history of mental illness

The New Orleans Advocate - 2/24/2017

A man who had a lengthy history of mental illness was found dead late Wednesday at the Orleans Justice Center, again raising concern about the lack of staffing at the city's troubled jail and drawing sharp criticism from attorneys representing inmates in a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the lockup.

The death of the inmate, Colby Crawford, did not appear to be self-inflicted or attributable to foul play, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office said, as no signs of trauma were found on the 23-year-old's body.

Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, scheduled an autopsy for Friday.

Authorities found Crawford unresponsive in his cell just after 8 p.m. Medical and security staff provided emergency treatment but were unable to revive him, the Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

While the cause of Crawford's death remained unclear, civil rights attorneys expressed outrage at accounts - provided by other inmates - that not a single deputy had been supervising Crawford's tier Wednesday evening, even as off-duty deputies worked private details in Carnival parades.

The Orleans Justice Center is so understaffed that hundreds of New Orleans inmates have been sent to facilities in other parishes to await trial.

"Had a deputy consistently been on the tier, they might have heard or seen something that could have prevented this death," said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

The Sheriff's Office, she added, has said it is "so short of deputies that entire tiers of the jail are unmanned and hundreds of pre-trial detainees have been moved to other jurisdictions. However, at the time of Mr. Crawford's death, there were OPSO deputies working private details driving cars in Mardi Gras parades."

The Sheriff's Office said in response that deputies working at parades or private security details "are doing so while off-duty and outside of their scheduled work hours."

The statement said the Sheriff's Office "continues to aggressively recruit, hire, and train staff and appreciates the hard work and contributions of our deputies as the department grows."

The Sheriff's Office'sInvestigative Services Bureau is investigating the death, the fourth of an inmate since the new jail opened in September 2015.

The lack of staffing at the jail comes more than three years into a federally monitored reform effort intended to improve conditions for inmates and deputies and reduce jailhouse violence.

Crawford's medical records show he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for years and that he had been frequently hospitalized during psychotic episodes.

In April 2016, he was admitted to University Medical Center with suicidal ideas after telling hospital staff he had been hallucinating and refusing to take his medication. That hospitalization followed an incident in which he grabbed a knife inside his mother's home and "attempted to put it down his pants," according to court documents. Crawford's sister told medical staff at the time that he was "getting worse by the day."

Crawford soon was transferred to Greenbrier Behavioral Health Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric facility in Covington, where he was held for several days. Shortly upon his release, in early May, he got into an argument with his mother and punched her "several times in the face with a closed fist" and also struck his sister with a wooden stick that had nails on it, according to a police report.

Crawford again was admitted to University Medical Center in a manic state, having not slept for two days. Hospital staff attributed his behavior to a methamphetamine binge and, at one point, placed him in four-point restraints to control him.

Crawford was released the following day and booked into the Orleans Justice Center, where he was being held on counts of aggravated battery, domestic abuse with a dangerous weapon and third-offense domestic battery. He also had been accused of violating the terms of his 2016 probation.

In June, a forensic psychologist said he believed Crawford was competent to stand trial. Crawford told the doctor during a psychiatric evaluation that he could not recall assaulting his mother and sister because he had used crystal meth.

Court records show Crawford was awaiting a mental competency hearing next month. The records also show he had been treated at a state prison facility in St. Gabriel that houses New Orleans inmates with severe mental illness.

However, Crawford was not being housed on the jail's mental health tier at the time of his death.

Emily Washington, another MacArthur Justice Center attorney, said the Sheriff's Office "has a history of not providing a safe level of care" for inmates suffering from mental illness.

Just hours before Crawford's death, the siblings of Cleveland Tumblin, a bipolar man who committed suicide at the jail last year, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court alleging Tumblin had been denied mental health treatment before hanging himself in a shower stall.

"Our city deserves answers about the death of a 23-year-old man in OPSO custody," Washington said, referring to Crawford. "The outrageous absence of staff continues to directly contribute to the injury to and death of people in OPSO custody."

 
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