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Do Tennessee Jails Provide Inadequate Mental Health Care?

If you are charged with a crime and detained while awaiting trial, you still have certain basic constitutional rights. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that no state may deprive a person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Federal and state courts have interpreted this Due Process Clause to require, among other things, that states and counties provide pretrial detainees with adequate medical treatment. Unfortunately, as a pending federal civil rights lawsuit in Nashville illustrates, some Tennessee jurisdictions may not be taking this constitutional duty seriously.

Tennessee County Faces Trial Over Inmate Suicide

In September 2012, a man being detained in Robertson County, Tennessee, on charges of bank robbery committed suicide. The decedent had suffered from severe depression and bipolar disorder. Prior to his detention, he had been hospitalized for mental illness and substance abuse. There was also evidence of prior suicide attempts.

According to court records, the decedent’s “abnormal behavior culminated in his robbing a bank.” Shortly after his arrest by federal agents, he was transported to a county jail. Jail officials were informed by agents, family, and a public defender that the decedent had mental health issues and was a suicide risk. Despite this, the decedent apparently did not receive any mental health care while in custody aside from a cursory examination by a registered nurse.

After the decedent committed suicide, his mother sued Robertson County, alleging its failure to provide adequate mental health care violated her son’s Fourteenth Amendment rights and led to his death. On June 14 of this year, a federal judge in Nashville denied the County’s motion for summary judgment. Without ruling on the merits of the mother’s complaint, the judge said there were “disputed issues of material fact” for a jury to resolve.

A key piece of evidence was a 2010 report prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted a lengthy investigation into Robertson County’s jail. The investigation came in response to concerns raised by federal prosecutors that detainees were not receiving “adequate nutrition and medical care.” While the DOJ ultimately determined that the count’s overall nutrition and health care practices were “minimally adequate to comply with the Constitution,” there was a “pattern or practice of constitutional violations in [the County’s] provision of mental health care.”

To put it bluntly, the DOJ said Robertson County’s “mental health practices place prisoners at a substantial and unreasonable risk of serious harm.” The DOJ noted that nurses “with little or no mental health training” were employed to deal with potentially suicidal patients. The DOJ said that “deviates from minimal constitutional requirements.”

“Tragically,” the judge in this case noted, when the decedent committed suicide, nearly a year after the DOJ issued its report, “the County had implemented no written policy changes.” Subsequently, in 2013, the DOJ filed its own civil lawsuit against the County, which resulted in a settlement forcing changes to the mental health care provided at the jail.

Despite all this, the County maintained it could not be legally responsible for a detainee’s decision to commit suicide. But the judge explained that if the jail was aware of the decedent’s “suicidal tendencies,” then it was “constitutionally obligated to provide him with medical attention that was not grossly inadequate.” Again, it will be up to a jury to answer these questions.

Get Help From a Tennessee Criminal Defense Lawyer

Nobody should ever be allowed to die while under government supervision due to inadequate medical care. An experienced Knoxville criminal defense attorney can help ensure the state respects your constitutional rights. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you require immediate legal assistance.

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