When the Llano County sheriff arrived at her home in August 2011, Shirley Appell thought that her son, Shawn, had escaped from the county jail.
The 45-year-old Air Force veteran had been arrested five months earlier after driving his car into a local tire shop, which she says was because he was suffering from schizophrenia.
But the sheriff, Bill Blackburn, came to tell her that her son had died in the jail. He had been suffering from delusions, telling anyone who would listen, “I got demons in my head” and beating his head against the wall. After 24 hours, he died of “blunt force trauma to the head,” according to the autopsy report.
Now, Appell is filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in a federal civil court against Donny Stewart, the jail administrator; Scottie Scoggins, a sergeant and jail supervisor; and Blackburn, saying their neglect paved the way for her son to commit suicide. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
“They neglected to take care of my son,” she said Thursday at a news conference held by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing her in the civil action. “There’s many mentally ill people, and we have some in Llano. I don’t want this to ever, ever happen to anyone else.”
In July, a Llano County grand jury indicted Stewart, the jail administrator, and Scoggins, a sergeant and jail supervisor, on charges of “injury to a disabled person by omission” in the case. Tom Kelley, a press officer for the attorney general’s office, which will prosecute the case, said no trial date had been set.
Michael Shaunessy, the attorney representing the jail employees and the sheriff, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Shortly after the criminal indictment, he told The Llano News that the jailers had sent their sympathy to the family, but had not done anything wrong.
Appell’s attorneys say the problem is broader than just this one death in Llano. “Our county jails have become the biggest institution for holding people with mental health problems,” said lawyer Brian McGiverin, who works for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “This is a particularly gruesome example of a problem that is statewide.”
Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said that administrative rules set out by his office require each jail to “have an approved mental health and suicide prevention plan,” which includes a mental history check on each person admitted to the jail. “Dealing with inmates with mental disabilities is a continuing problem,” he said. “Whenever you speak with administrators they'll say this is the biggest challenge they face.”
Appell said her son served in the U.S. Air Force from 1984 to 1988, and learned to work as a mechanic in Okinawa. After an honorable discharge, he found work repairing oil rigs and airplanes.
Neither she nor the lawyers know what triggered his schizophrenia, but Appell says his paranoia grew with drug use. “Once he thought I was going to kill him,” she said. “He wouldn’t eat the food I cooked or anything.” McGiverin added that “self-medication for mental illness” is common among veterans.
In April last year, Appell said, her son thought that the man who owned a Llano tire shop had been planning to kill him, and so he ran his car into the shop and was booked into the Llano County Jail on criminal mischief charges.
Five months later, administrators from the Llano County Jail sent Appell to Scott & White Hospital, where he was treated for a laceration to his forehead, because he had beaten it against the wall. “After deputies returned Shawn to a cell,” McGiverin wrote in the civil action submitted Thursday, “he resumed beating his head against the wall.”
McGiverin says the jailers must have heard him. “The noise reverberated through the building,” he wrote. When Appell was found dead in his cell the next day, McGiverin said, he had “dark bruising from his forehead down to his cheekbones.”
But Shaunessy, who represents the jail administrators, said the fact that Appell had been treated for the lacerations on his head was evidence that they had done everything possible to help him.
Diana Claitor of the Texas Jail Project thinks that jail administrators are not doing enough to prevent these kinds of abuses. “Mental health care in these jails is limited and hampered by jailers who are often either not trained well, or new, young and inexperienced,” she said, “or old hands who don't really believe that mental illness is a real illness.”
According to the Texas Administrative Code, jail facilities are required to observe “inmates known to be assaultive, potentially suicidal, mentally ill, or who have demonstrated bizarre behavior are confined” every 30 minutes.
In large jails, explained Alan Bernstein, Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County sheriff’s office, it is easier for administrators to assign employees to monitor mentally ill inmates. But in smaller county jails, he explained, monitoring a single inmate with psychiatric problems might take up a larger percentage of the staff’s time, and become a logistical challenge. The Llano County Jail holds as many as 54 prisoners at one time.