Lawsuit: Mississippi guards didn’t stop suicide of inmate held too long

MERIDIAN, Miss. — The widow of a man who killed himself in a rural Mississippi jail has filed suit, blaming officials for holding the man 54 days when he was supposed to have been jailed for two days.

LaToya Johnson says in the lawsuit that guards didn’t watch Robert Wayne Johnson closely even after discovering the Meridian man already had apparently attempted suicide behind bars.

The suit was filed Monday in federal court in Jackson by the MacArthur Justice Center and another lawyer. It names Kemper County, Sheriff James Moore and jail employees. Moore didn’t immediately return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.

The suit alleges that the jail violated Johnson’s constitutional rights to equal protection and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Johnson’s death also illustrates continuing problems with conditions for mentally ill people jailed in Mississippi.

“Officers are not adequately trained to provide the care and protection required by law and often disregard the legal rights of mentally ill detainees,” said lawyer Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Center. He’s unrelated to the dead inmate.

In recent days, the state Department of Mental Health has announced plans to build a new facility to evaluate and treat mental illness in people accused of crimes. Robert Johnson was unlikely to benefit from such services, which usually focus on people accused of serious crimes.

A Meridian city judge sentenced Johnson to two days in jail and 199 hours of community service for unpaid fines on Nov. 16, 2017, sending him to the Kemper Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility, which houses some Meridian inmates. The suit says Johnson was jobless and too poor to pay the fines. The plight of those who can’t pay fines is the subject of ongoing litigation in Mississippi by the MacArthur center.

The lawsuit alleges Kemper County never evaluated Johnson’s mental health, even though he had previously been admitted to mental health facilities and tried to kill himself. His two days in jail turned into weeks “due to the failure of defendants to properly monitor release dates,” lawyers say.

Johnson was still jailed in January 2018, with lawyers saying he was expressing the mistaken belief that he faced serious felony charges and showing signs of suicidal thoughts, such as tearing his towel into strips and tying those around his neck.

“The towel strips were plainly visible to jail staff,” the suit states.

Johnson worsened on Jan. 9 when he tied a shoelace around his neck and pulled it tight to simulate hanging, the lawsuit states. Later, inmates saw Johnson cut his wrists, taking a razor blade away and calling guards. Guards left Johnson in the same dorm without consulting a supervisor or medical professional, the suit says, until Johnson scuffled with other inmates, frustrated that they had alerted guards.

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