BROWNSTOWN, Ind. — Jackson County has agreed to a $7.25 million settlement to resolve a federal civil rights lawsuits filed by the surviving relative of an inmate suffering from an acute mental health crisis who died in 2021 after spending 20 days in solitary confinement at the Jackson County Jail, according to an attorney involved in the case.
The inmate, Joshua McLemore, 29, died in August 2021 from multiple organ failure as a result of dehydration and malnutrition after being locked naked in a padded isolation cell for nearly “every second of every day for almost three straight weeks,” according to a complaint filed earlier this year by Melita Ladner, McLemore’s aunt and the court-appointed administrator of his estate.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Albany, names Jackson County, Jackson County Sheriff Rick Meyer; Jackson County Jail Commander Chris Everhart; Scott Ferguson, a night shift sergeant at the jail; and Milton Edward Rutan, a nurse at the jail, as defendants.
Private contractor Advanced Correctional Healthcare and its employee Dr. Ronald Everson, who is described in the lawsuit as having “policy making responsibilities” regarding medical care at the jail, also are defendants.
The settlement only resolves claims against Jackson County and county officials. The lawsuit against the contractor and its employee is still ongoing.
Attorneys for Seattle-based civil rights law firm Budge & Heipt PLLC, which are representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit, have claimed that the settlement is believed to be the largest ever for a jail death in Indiana.
“More than anything, I want this to be a wake-up call to Jackson County and every other jail. That was also the goal of Josh’s late mother, Rhonda McLemore,” Ladner said in a statement this week. “No other person should be made to suffer as Josh did, and I hope other families will be spared from similar pain.”
Jackson County Attorney Susan Bevers did not respond to requests for comment or to questions about where the funds for the settlement payment came from. County officials issued a press release Friday stating the county paid the $7.25 million to McLemore’s estate as it maintains law enforcement liability coverage through its insurance carrier.
Jackson County Council President Brian Thompson noted that the settlement did not result in an increase in taxes.
The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that jail officials and the contractor exhibited “deliberate indifference” to McLemore’s health as it deteriorated and failed to intervene and secure the medical and mental health care he needed.
Jail officials also allegedly failed to maintain required observation logs and comply with state laws governing solitary confinement, only allowing McLemore to leave his cell “when guards would forcibly remove him and strap him into restraint devices so they could put him under a shower and clean his cell,” the lawsuit states.
Due to being in a “constant state of psychosis,” McLemore ate and drank very little while being held at the Jackson County Jail, losing 45 pounds in 20 days, the complaint states.
Jail officials allegedly didn’t notice that McLemore needed medical attention until his condition was “so dire” that Schneck Medical Center did not not have the clinic resources to treat him, the lawsuit states. McLemore instead had to be airlifted to a Cincinnati hospital, where he later died.
In the county’s statement, officials said the cause of McLemore’s death was “multiple organ failure due to malnutrition,” adding that “McLemore had refused to eat while incarcerated.”
The civil lawsuit comes after Jackson County Prosecutor Jeffrey Chalfant determined last year that no jail employees were criminally liable for McLemore’s death even though the inmate “most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention” by jail staff, according to a 12-page report by Chalfant that concluded a nine-month investigation.
Jackson County denied in court filings that the county’s sheriff and officials at its jail violated McLemore’s constitutional rights.
However, the county acknowledged that staff failed to comply with a policy that requires all inmates to undergo a health evaluation within 14 days of being admitted to the jail.
Attorneys representing the Jackson County defendants further argued in their response that county officials could not be held individually liable for McLemore’s death because they have “qualified immunity,” which protects government employees from lawsuits if their actions don’t violate clearly established law or constitutional rights.
County officials said Friday that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department “has taken steps to ensure detainees with mental health conditions will receive appropriate care early in the process.”
“The sheriff’s department has added a mental health nurse to the jail staff in an effort to identify those subjects struggling with a serious mental health condition as quickly as possible so that they may receive appropriate care,” Thompson said. “The department has also refined the Fit for Confinement policy to evaluate detainees more closely before they are accepted for confinement,” he said.
Advanced Correctional Healthcare also has denied allegations in the lawsuit that it engaged in “unconstitutional customs and practices” at the jail and that the medical care that McLemore received while behind bars “was not dictated or driven by” its policies, customs or systemic issues.
The company defended the actions of Everson, arguing that he “was not personally involved” in the alleged constitutional violations and that the medical care he provided to McLemore “was reasonable and within the community standard of care,” according to the court filing.
Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Advanced Correctional Healthcare describes itself on its website as “the nation’s largest jail contract management company,” and claims to manage the medical care of over 34,000 inmates at over 370 correctional facilities in 21 states. The company also provides mental health services at the Bartholomew County Jail.
As of Friday morning, the lawsuit was pending in federal court.