Indiana: Analysis finds faults at Tippecanoe Co. jail; Grievances allege a lack of mental health care for inmates

By Sophia Voravong

Journal & Courier

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) -- The darkened, slightly raised scars that cover nearly every inch of Charity Lekeia Brown's body are a daily reminder of a brief but frightening stay at Tippecanoe County Jail last year.

The Lafayette woman, who was booked into jail last June for nonpayment of child support, developed allergy-like symptoms, including a runny nose and dehydration.

The symptoms worried but didn't alarm her. Within days, however, blisters developed around her mouth, her eyes began to swell and her breathing became labored. Panicky, she called for a jail officer at 12:30 one morning.

"I pushed the button, let them know I was having trouble breathing," Brown, 25, recalled. "They gave me a medical slip. ... I never saw a doctor. They kept saying, 'We'll let a doctor know.' "

Days later, Brown was in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis recovering from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a sometimes fatal disorder caused by an allergic reaction to medication. It causes the skin to essentially burn off from the inside out.

While in jail, Brown had been given a seizure medication that was not her usual prescription. Her ordeal -- now the subject of pending or contemplated legal actions -- prompted the Journal & Courier to file a public records request for all grievances filed at the jail since 2007.

An analysis of 1,109 of those grievances from 2008 through 2010 revealed numerous instances of inmates complaining about unsanitary and unhealthy conditions -- ranging from mold on the walls to ice on the windows, to soiled cups and eating utensils.

In their words: Tippecanoe County Jail inmate grievances

But what wasn't provided may be just as telling. Citing federal privacy law, the jail withheld medical grievances -- 530 in all for the years 2007 through 2009, or more than a quarter of grievances filed.

Charity Brown's ordeal, she says, began when she was treated with Dilantin instead of her regular seizure medication, Lamictal, while in jail. The decision was made by a doctor she never saw or talked with, Brown said.

She further claims that two nurses who treated her claimed nothing was wrong --at one point, saying it was probably the high pollen count outside causing her allergy-like symptoms.

Her eyes were swollen shut and remained that way for three weeks while she was locked up. Scars that formed where her skin blistered likely will last for three years, she was told.

"There was just so much pus and discharge that it sealed my eyes shut," said Brown, who was hospitalized at Methodist for a month. "It was painful to open them.

" ... I could not see. I could not see at all. I felt like I was burning. My whole body was burning."

The Tippecanoe County Jail's physician is contracted through Peoria, Ill.-based Advanced Correctional Healthcare, according to Sheriff Tracy Brown.

Calls to Advanced Correctional Healthcare for comment were not returned.

Tracy Brown said he is unable to comment directly on Charity Brown's case because of confidentiality rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

But after looking at the Journal & Courier's detailed analysis of jail grievances, the sheriff said he is considering whether his staff should likewise track future grievances by category to spot trends.

"We have state codes, statutes, that guide us in our day-to-day operations," he said. "Certainly we want to do everything possible to operate within those guidelines."

"The reality is, we're dealing with a population that is not happy about being here. ... We're like a hotel, but we don't get to choose who our customers are.

"When we have issues, we want to do what we can to resolve those issues."

For its analysis, the Journal & Courier assigned categories and subcategories to the grievances, then sorted them by date and, in some cases, by inmate to look for trends.

Among the grievances examined, several alleged a lack of mental health care for inmates.

In March 2009, an inmate filed a grievance over the lack of attention he received after he "experienced a severe mental breakdown" and tried to harm himself by swallowing liquid cleaners and smearing feces on his face.

"No medical or mental health attention was given whatsoever," the grievance said.

In an unsigned response, a jail officer said someone would "look into this situation."

Though she would not comment on specific cases, jail commander Capt. Denise Saxton said the jail hired a mental health social worker in November 2009 using a two-year grant. She said the jail is looking for other ways to fund the position when the grant ends this year.

"We don't want to get rid of something that has been so beneficial to the inmates as well as the staff here," she said.

At least two non-medical lawsuits are pending against the county jail, including one directly related to the way inmate grievances are handled.

That lawsuit, filed in January 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of former inmate Jeffrey M. Olson, claims that inmates' rights were repeatedly violated and that grievances were not handled through proper channels.

Conditions in the jail are such that numerous inmates sentenced to state correctional facilities have asked -- sometimes begged -- to be transferred to prison. A grievance filed June 24, 2009, by Brian Lowe illustrates the point.

"I would like to know why I am being held up here in this county jail when my sentence ordered the remainder of my time at DOC," Lowe wrote, referring to the Department of Correction.

"I am not being able to get the proper medical attention and the proper (Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous) programs I need," said Lowe, who was sentenced Oct. 15, 2008, to seven years for operating a vehicle while intoxicated with a prior and for being a habitual substance offender.

The jail officer, whose name is not included on the grievance, responded: "Mr. Lowe, we currently have 114 people on the DOC list, one of which is you. They have no room to move you."

In a given year, about 8,000 inmates are booked into the jail.

While many inmates quickly move in and out, some stay months or even years, including many sentenced to the Indiana Department of Correction.

State prisons offer college credit courses and other classes that the jail doesn't offer. The inability to obtain prison time cuts while at jail is cited in several grievances, and not everyone who wants to get into GED training is able to do so.

Saxton said all Tippecanoe County Jail inmates can sign up for GED classes, which are taught by the Lafayette Adult Resource Academy. They are free.

All may sign up, but not all participate. During the time period studied, several inmates complained of not being allowed to attend GED classes, for various reasons or no reasons at all.

"Jail staff does not control who goes to GED class. You need to talk to the GED teacher," an unnamed jail officer responded to an inmate's grievance, who claimed he had been on the GED waiting list for more than a year.

Many responses to grievances were not dated or signed, and about 32 grievances had no response at all.

Since 2009, procedures for tracking and responding to grievances have changed, partly in response to the ACLU lawsuit.

ACLU staff attorney Gavin Rose, who is representing Olson, said the ACLU filed the lawsuit because of "a number of similar complaints that largely echoed each other" by county jail inmates. Although he has received similar complaints from inmates in jails statewide, the number coming out of Tippecanoe County warranted legal action, he said.

It's the only lawsuit the ACLU of Indiana is currently handling regarding a county jail's conditions.

Doug Masson, who is representing the county in the legal cases involving jail inmates, said the status of Olson's lawsuit has not been updated in federal court since October. He's waiting for a judge to rule on whether the lawsuit can be dismissed; the ACLU is waiting to hear whether it can proceed as a class-action complaint.

According to Rose, federal law requires county jails to have a grievance system in place.

"They need to have some type of protection in place -- a way to report problems either with other inmates or staff members," Rose said. "At the Tippecanoe jail, a common one is that it gets uncomfortably cold. That is not how it should be."

Sheriff Brown said that after the ACLU lawsuit was filed, his office started using carbon copy forms, storing grievances electronically and numbering them as they come in.

Under the new system, adopted in November, grievances are signed and dated by the receiving officer and the officer handling the complaint.

Published: Tue, May 31, 2011