Georgia Prisons settles with family of trans woman for $2.2 million

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Amid an ongoing federal investigation into the way Georgia treats LGBTQ incarcerated people, the family of one transgender woman who died under guards’ noses settled their case.

Jenna Mitchell’s parents filed the civil lawsuit in 2019 claiming that Valdosta State Prison officials ignored their daughter’s mental health crisis and “encouraged her to commit suicide” moments before she ultimately did.

She “died in Valdosta State Prison because the prison and its employees failed to keep her safe,” according to the complaint.

The settlement for $2.2 million came last week, exactly two years after parents Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva filed the complaint. The suit named the facility’s warden, the corrections officer on duty, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Georgia Board of Regents.

It 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. She remained in a men’s prison despite approval for medical gender transition. The state claimed solitary confinement was a fair compromise, and it ignored blatant and specific warnings that she was considering suicide.

“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.

Small relief, no justice

Mitchell’s mother called Valdosta State Prison on Dec. 2, 2017 and told an employee that Mitchell threatened suicide. She “implored” the prison to put Mitchell on suicide watch, according to the complaint.

Officials did not put her on suicide watch. She told the corrections officer she was going to hang herself, and he did nothing to stop her.

“Instead, Defendant Igou verbally taunted [Mitchell] and encouraged her to commit suicide,” according to the complaint.

Attorneys for Mitchell’s parents claimed at least one inmate told the officer that Mitchell was taking steps to commit suicide.

“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 remained in a coma for two days before dying. The suit alleged a falsified incident report that the warden knowingly signed.

The director of the ACLU of Georgia talked to Project Q when the parents filed suit.

“People who are transgender already face a heightened risk of suicidal ideation and other mental issues because society attacks their very existence,” Sean Young told us at the time. “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.”

A lawsuit filed by Ashley Diamond prompted the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 to investigate the Georgia’s prison system’s treatment of LGBTQ inmates. (Photo courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center by Robin Henson)

Ongoing problem

The civil suit resolution leaves open the opportunity for the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against individual defendants.

“There is no question that they should,” he said. “Even a record-setting civil recovery cannot begin to repair the damage caused by this horrific event,” plaintiff attorney David B. Shanies told NBC.

It also leaves open the five-year-long Department of Justice investigation into systemic mistreatment of Georgia’s transgender and gay incarcerated people. Inmates including Ashley Diamond are still in daily peril.

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