The parents of a transgender woman filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Valdosta State Prison officials ignored their daughter’s mental health crisis and “encouraged her to commit suicide” moments before she ultimately did.
Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva filed the suit in U.S. District Court against the jail, former Warden Don Blakely, Corrections Officer James Lee Roy Igou, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Georgia Board of Regents.
“Jenna Mitchell died in Valdosta State Prison because the prison and its employees failed to keep her safe,” according to the complaint.
Attorneys for Maree and Spiva claimed that the defendants violated Mitchell’s civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The lawsuit said Mitchell suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and gender dysphoria.
“Jenna died by suicide while housed in solitary confinement, because the defendants were deliberately indifferent to her serious medical needs and failed to accommodate her mental health disabilities,” according to the complaint.
Suit: Officer laughed before inmate's suicide
The defendants were aware of Mitchell's well-documented history of mental illness, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, according to attorneys for her parents.
Maree called Valdosta State Prison on Dec. 2, 2017 and told an employee that Mitchell had threatened suicide. Maree asked to speak with Blakely and “implored” the prison to put Mitchell on suicide watch, according to the complaint.
Mitchell was placed in solitary confinement two days later and was not kept on suicide watch. She told Igou she was going to commit suicide by hanging, but Maree and Spiva’s attorneys claim Igou did nothing to help her.
“Instead, Defendant Igou verbally taunted [Mitchell] and encouraged her to commit suicide,” according to the complaint.
Attorneys for Mitchell's parents claimed that at least one inmate told Igou that Mitchell was taking steps to commit suicide as Igou walked away from Mitchell’s cell.
“Defendant Igou laughed, and shouted down the cell block that [Mitchell] should wait until he returned before committing suicide because he ‘want[ed] to see’ that happen,” according to the complaint.
Mitchell then hanged herself. She was taken to a hospital where she remained in a coma before dying two days later, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit asked for a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.
Judge denies motion to dismiss
Maree and Spiva are represented by the ACLU of Georgia and attorney David Shanies.
Sean Young (second photo), ACLU of Georgia’s legal director, told Project Q Atlanta that transgender people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
“People who are transgender already face a heightened risk of suicidal ideation and other mental issues because society attacks their very existence,” he said. “People who are transgender are already more likely to be viciously attacked. We must do what we can to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
Young would not comment on the specifics of the case.
Attorneys for Maree and Spiva filed the initial complaint against Blakely, Igou and Sgt. Wallace Richardson in March. An amended complaint filed in August dropped Richardson from the suit and added the Department of Corrections and the Board of Regents.
Attorneys for Blakely, who has since retired as warden, and for Igou filed a motion to dismiss the suit in September. Judge Louis Sands denied the motions in October.
The Georgia Board of Regents did not respond to Project Q’s request for comment on the lawsuit. The Georgia Department of Corrections said it does not comment on pending litigation.
Mitchell was convicted of robbery with intimidation in Union County in 2015, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Top photo courtesy WALB; second photo by Russ Youngblood