Marion County Jail sued for offender suicides

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 26, 2016)-- There’s a banner high above the main entrance to the Marion County Jail that advertises Sheriff John Layton’s office ranking in the, “Top 1% of Sheriffs’ Offices in America!”

Below are listed three accrediting national associations and commissions.

In the clerk’s office of the U.S. District Court several blocks away in downtown Indianapolis, a growing roster of lawsuits claiming the jail and sheriff have been derelict in their protection of the rights and lives of offenders continues to grow.

Eric Pavlack filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of the estate of DeJuan Shepherd, an inmate struggling with mental illness who hung himself in a jail shower two years ago.

“It's very alarming on the day that he committed suicide he had been referred for a psychiatric evaluation because of suspected bipolar schizophrenia and what he termed as bad anxiety and hours later after that screening took place he killed himself,” said Pavlack. “The jail has a responsibility to screen people to see if they pose a threat to themselves and properly monitor them. They failed in both respects.”

Pavlack also filed suit last month on behalf of the family of Mark Snyder who killed himself in a similar fashion one year earlier.

That litigation was filed a week before Thomas Cook killed himself in the jail and three months after gymnastics coach Marvin Sharp committed suicide in his cell and several months after Jared Foundation Direction Russell Taylor unsuccessfully tried to take his own life while in federal custody at the facility.

Sheriff Layton’s response has been to name a committee to examine his jail suicide prevention policies.

Public Safety Director Dr. David Wantz will chair that investigation, which begins Wednesday.

Pavlack thinks he knows what the committee and his lawsuit will uncover.

“It's that they’re understaffed and they’re underfunded and they’re overcrowded and they don’t have the resources to provide these people with the care that they are entitled to,” said Pavlack. “And we know that just a few months ago that Sheriff Layton dismissed the person in charge of that jail. He disciplined 18 deputies and apparently is rewriting the book on the way they operate over there. That reflects that there are serious problems in that jail that go beyond suicides. It goes into all aspects of the way that they are doing things and we intend to dig into the case and to subpoena records and find out all about that as part of our investigation and prosecution of this case.”

Several former offenders have sued the jail in the wake of a FOX59 investigation into the widespread over-detentions of inmates in violation of court orders while at the same time some prisoners were mistakenly released.

FOX59 recently received an internal jail memo that read, “ALL Jail Division Deputies; ALL Court Line Deputies; Reserves (Division)…will be required to sign up to work at either Jail, Intake or APC…in order to satisfy all of the staffing needs.”

The memo concludes that the assignment of mandatory overtime to relieve the understaffing crisis, “will be strictly monitored!”

In the wake of the recently filed Shepherd lawsuit, a second memo, which the sheriff’s office refused to confirm due to pending litigation, read, “Due to possible civil action, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has been requested to ask personnel to preserve personal e-mails generated during the period of January 1, 2014, through and including October 21, 2015.”

The ordered retention of e-mails would coincide with the timing of Shepherd’s suicide and the removal of former Jail Commander Royce Cole from his position.

“But we hope that that gets the attention of the people running the jail,” said Pavlack whose clients are seeking unspecified damages in both cases, “and ultimately they don’t save money when they understaff the jail. It's going to cost them money when they don’t do it right.”

At the time of his office’s “Triple Crown” rankings, Layton told FOX59 that such accreditations would prevent federal lawsuit awards as the courts would consider those standards as proof of the jail’s defense to frivolous litigation.

Pavlack disagrees.

“Of course it's terribly ironic when people say one thing and do another and we see it all the time,” he said. “We wish they would concentrate on proper performance instead of touting about how great they do things.”

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