When 29-year old Gregory Cheek was admitted to the Nueces County Jail on a charge of criminal mischief in October 2010, he was covered in blue spray paint.
A week later, a judge said he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Cheek's lawyers say that his bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia led to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. He spent hours talking to himself and flooded his cell with water. At one point, Cheek was put on suicide watch, according to court documents. A month later, he had lost more than 30 pounds and his legs became discolored due to an infection. He collapsed in his cell on Feb. 6, 2011, and died the next day.
Preliminary autopsy results showed signs that Cheek had meningitis, prompting jail officials to advise anyone who had come in close contact with him to see a doctor.
Two years later, Cheek’s mother, along with the Texas Civil Rights Project, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the jail and the county sheriff, saying they should have transferred her son to a mental health facility. “Those failures killed him,” the lawsuit says. The case is set to be heard by a federal judge in Corpus Christi in May.
“I can’t believe what they did to my son,” Cheek’s mother, Katie, said in a statement. “He was sick, and needed help.”
John Galvan, the chief deputy at the Nueces County sheriff’s office, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. At the time of Cheek's death, Assistant Chief Mike McKenzie told local reporters that he had been awaiting transfer to the San Antonio State Hospital.
“A jail is set up to confine people. It's not set up to treat their mental health and medical needs,” said Scott Medlock, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project working on the case. "I don't know that we really know where the infection came from. Jails are incubators of all sorts of nasty infections like that."
Last November, the Texas Civil Rights Project brought a lawsuit on behalf of Shirley Appell, who claimed that administrators at the Llano County Jail failed to protect her son as he beat his head against the wall, leading to his death. In 2010, Amy Lynn Cowling died in the Gregg County Jail, prompting a lawsuit by her mother regarding the jail’s policies, which did not allow Cowling to take medications to treat her bipolar disorder. Her death was ruled a fatal seizure resulting from a withdrawal from the medications.
“Dealing with inmates with mental disabilities is a continuing problem,” said Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. “Whenever you speak with administrators, they'll say this is the biggest challenge they face.” The commission requires 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.
In November, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed Senate Bill 36, which would bar law enforcement from keeping mentally ill people in a jail instead of a mental health facility. “Too often, jails are used as holding facilities for persons with mental illness who have not committed a crime,” Zaffirini told the Longview News-Journal.