County pays $2.8M in mentally ill inmate’s death
PORTLAND, Ore. — The estate of a mentally ill inmate in Oregon will receive $2.85 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged the man died of dehydration and starvation after jail staff failed to get him medical treatment during a severe depressive episode.
Bradley Thomas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was found dead in his cell on April 8, 2015 after refusing to eat, drink or take medication for days.
Jail staff in Lincoln County noted in shift logs that Thomas dunked his bedding and clothing in his toilet, smeared his feces on the wall and urinated in his cell repeatedly. He spit out his food and splashed water around his cell until deputies shut off the water to his cell, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
Two weeks after Thomas’ arrest on a misdemeanour charge, a county judge ordered him committed to a state mental hospital, but jail staff were told no beds were free, said Jennifer Middleton, an attorney who represented Thomas’ family the case. He was returned to his cell, where he was found lying naked and unresponsive the following morning.
“What’s a mystery to me is why they didn’t just take him to the emergency room because he was so clearly in distress. It’s just shocking,” Middleton said.
“For whatever reason, they just didn’t see what was plainly in front of them — which was that he was dying on their watch.”
An autopsy determined Thomas died of dehydration, according to both the plaintiffs and county.
Lincoln County provided its jail staff with additional training following Thomas’ death and is now part of a national program that aims to reduce the number of mental ill individuals in jails, county counsel Wayne Belmont said in a statement Tuesday.
“If we could all live in hindsight, things like this would never happen. Had people realized that he was going through dehydration like he was, they would have immediately taken steps so that this didn’t happen,” said Steve Kraemer, an attorney for Lincoln County. “Keep in mind, when he came into the jail, he was living by himself and caring for his daily needs.”
A court transcript from the April 7, 2015 commitment hearing shows that Thomas was booked into the jail on March 23, 2015 after spitting in his landlord’s face and threatening her husband with a sword when the couple tried to get him to turn down his music. He had been playing loud music all night and beating on his RV, truck and boat with a large staff.
When he arrived at the jail, Thomas was very aggressive and agitated — signs of the manic phase of his bipolar disorder, according to the transcript. Jail staffers knew him from a previous arrest a year before. On that occasion, he had ultimately been committed to the state mental hospital, where he improved with medication and was released.
This time, Thomas insisted he was not mentally ill and refused medication.
Over a week, however, his condition deteriorated rapidly as he entered the depressive phase of his bipolar disorder, court papers say.
He stopped eating and drinking and paced naked in his cell. He entered a catatonic state and eventually stopped talking and even had trouble walking, court papers allege. He was placed in a disciplinary unit of the jail for bad behaviour and deputies shut off his water after he stuffed his bedding in his toilet and sprayed water around his cell.
The fact that Thomas refused mood-stabilizing medication and that his jailers couldn’t find a bed for him at a mental health facility is no excuse, Middleton said.
“They have the authority and they’re supposed to take somebody like him to the emergency room,” she said.
After Thomas’ death, the jail began requiring corrections deputies to note when they turn water off and on in an inmate’s cell.