News Article Details

Lawsuit: Needing mental health help, he was left to die in jail

Appeal-Democrat - 2/6/2018

Feb. 06--For two months, Bertram Hiscock had been rapidly deteriorating inside the Yuba County Jail, mumbling nonsensical phrases like he "felt like a zebra, (his) mid-section is shredded cheese."

According to a lawsuit, the 34-year-old, on his third attempt, killed himself on Jan. 29, 2017, choking on his own urine and feces.

Named in a federal lawsuit brought by Hiscock's brother, Vincent, and father, Sherrick, are: Sutter and Yuba counties; Yuba County Sheriff Steve Durfor; Sutter-Yuba Behavioral Health Director Tony Hobson; and jail psychiatrist Joan Odom.

The civil lawsuit, filed in late December, alleges defendants failed to provide meaningful mental health treatment, failed to protect him from harm, wrongful death and negligence. The claimants seek unspecified damages.

Hiscock was arrested Nov. 14, 2016, when he put his mother in a chokehold and began walking with her down the side of the road, according to the lawsuit, which tagged it a bipolar incident -- a mental condition characterized by manic and depressive episodes.

Though his mother told police Hiscock was mentally ill and requested he be taken to a hospital, he was arrested and booked into Yuba County Jail, charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment.

The suit alleges that the defendants failed to provide Hiscock any mental health treatment other than medication and failed to protect him from the risk of serious harm. It also states the defendants severely exacerbated Hiscock's mental illness, "resulting in his unnecessary pain and suffering and, ultimately, his untimely death."

"Jail officials must be held accountable for failing to provide mental health treatment to persons in their custody," said Joshua Nuni, one the lawyers representing the Hiscock estate, in an email Monday. "The defendants here were aware that Mr. Hiscock was clearly a suicide risk, and they failed to address it -- even worse, they exacerbated the problem. Ultimately, what the defendants did resulted in Mr. Hiscock's tragic and untimely death... We hope that by bringing some justice to Mr. Hiscock's family in this case, this lawsuit can help prevent further tragedies like this in jails in the state and around the country going forward."

Leslie Carbah, a spokesperson for the Yuba County Sheriff's Office, said in an email Monday that the department cannot comment on pending litigation. Hobson did not respond to a request for comment.

Leading to his death

When Hiscock was coming into the jail, staff noted that he was making delusional statements, and despite an unlicensed mental health crisis counselor stating that he exhibited significant impairment, he was not referred to a psychiatrist for treatment, the suit alleges.

Hiscock's brother called the jail to inform staff of his history of serious mental illness, and Hiscock himself requested a psychiatric evaluation. More than a week after the referral, a social worker recommended only that mental health staff follow up in a month, according to the lawsuit, despite Hiscock's history, diagnosis and paranoid state.

More than three weeks after his arrest, Hiscock was housed in administrative segregation, where inmates are confined in a cell for up to 23 hours a day with no exterior windows providing natural light, according to the suit. Hiscock reportedly told staff he wanted to start his Abilify medication but was referred to a mental health counselor.

By the one-month mark of his incarceration, Hiscock still had not received medication and staff observed he appeared depressed and was acting bizarre -- crying, rambling, and pushing his bedsheets out of his cell. He was then moved to an isolated holding cell with observation checks every 30 minutes.

A sergeant arranged for Hiscock to speak with an unlicensed crisis counselor by phone, in which Hiscock told her, "I think I'm having a mental health crisis from talking to too many Michaels and watching too many Toms... I feel like I should have been put in a firetruck and taken to the hospital. I didn't do anything," according to the suit.

Continued observations were recommended and on Dec. 15, Hiscock attempted suicide by attempting to strangle himself. When officers gained control of his hands and asked what he was doing, Hiscock told them, "I stripped my body down to tiny little feet and a piece of scalp," according to the suit.

He was again assessed by an unlicensed counselor. He stated he had "a purple elephant in my throat, but it's out now." She recommended his clothing be removed and he be moved to a safety cell.

The safety cells are empty 7-by-7-foot spaces with padded walls, a padded floor, no windows and no other fixtures or furniture. Inmates are expected to urinate and defecate through a grate in the floor. Records indicated that Hiscock was locked in the cell continuously for more than a week without any mental health treatment.

On Dec. 18, according to the lawsuit, Hiscock was seen playing with his feces and was moved to a different safety cell. He was seen talking to himself and spreading feces on himself, but a social worker recommended he remain isolated. He still did not receive any medication.

Two days later, Hiscock attempted suicide for a second time by putting feces in his mouth in an attempt to choke himself. He was finally seen by a psychiatrist, Odom, and was prescribed an anti-psychotic drug he was allergic to. Despite continued psychosis and inability to be housed with others, Odom determined Hiscock had an "excellent response" to the medication because he was able to pour a cup of urine down the drain when told, according to information in the lawsuit.

But during the next week, Hiscock told staff the medication was not the right prescription and refused to take it. A second psychiatrist finally prescribed Abilify -- his usual medication -- more than a week later. On Jan. 4, 2017, Odom conducted a full psychiatric evaluation on Hiscock for the first time in his incarceration, according to the suit. Despite rapid speech and recent suicide attempts, Odom scheduled a follow-up in 30 days.

On Jan. 25, Hiscock was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was scheduled for a hearing Feb. 9, 2017, to determine his placement in a state mental institution. Two days later, staff noted Hiscock's diminishing mental status: he appeared pale and sweating, had his arms hanging out of the cell's feed slot and requested the officer "lightly break his knuckles and realign them" and that he be sent to the hospital due to his "organs spoiling." He was moved to an isolated holding cell with observation checks every 30 minutes. Soon after, he began slamming his head against the cell window and asked that he be placed in handcuffs.

Hiscock was relocated again to a safety cell, where he resisted; officers allegedly forced him to the ground, held him down, and cut off his clothing, according to the suit. Over the next two days, Hiscock was observed with a shuffled gait, rigid extremities, a fixed stare and had engaged in self-harm behaviors.

On Jan. 28, a sergeant struck Hiscock's hand to make him release his grip on the officer's keys, then pepper sprayed him. A nurse determined Hiscock was uninjured, but his responses to questions were fixated on dinosaurs and frogs. He was not evaluated by a psychiatrist.

The next day, Hiscock was seen walking around his cell naked, making bizarre statements, smearing feces and pushing his entire safety gown out of the cell's slot. A counselor only noted that Hiscock should see Odom if he didn't improve.

Officers did not check on Hiscock every 15 minutes as required, according to the suit, and he was found unresponsive around 12:48 p.m. Jail staff called for an ambulance at 1:06 p.m. and at 1:53 p.m. he was pronounced dead at Rideout Memorial Hospital.


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