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PRESS RELEASE - Jeremy Oswalt Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Steve Wagner

FOR IMMEDIATE PRESS RELEASE

July 6, 2017

Today the family of Jeremy Oswalt filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against Adams County Sheriff Shane L. Rekeweg, the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, and 10 Jail officers in connection with Jeremy’s September 28, 2016 death while detained at the former Adams County Jail located at 313 South 1st Street, in Decatur, Indiana. In connection with the filing of this lawsuit, the family’s attorney issues the following statement:

“There is an epidemic in America which no one wants to talk about, much less address. Individuals with serious mental health illnesses receive poor treatment—or no treatment at all—while detained in county jails, resulting in a downward spiral that often leads to a preventable health crisis or even death.”

“County governments operate a majority of the approximately 3,000 jails in the United States. Housed within those jails, the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that 64% of the jail population has some type of mental health illness. According to a 2009 study, 15% of male jail inmates and 31% of female jail inmates have a serious mental illness, which includes depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, delusional disorders and psychotic disorders. The cost of providing health care to detainees is significant for county jails, representing between 9% and 30% of a jail’s budget. Notwithstanding the challenge posed by tight budgets, county jails have a constitutional, and moral, responsibility to provide inmates with adequate health care, including treatment for mental health illnesses. Unfortunately, many jails fail to meet this responsibility, leaving the most vulnerable at risk.”

“Jeremy Oswalt was one of those at risk. He had been diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder with psychosis, a condition which had required numerous inpatient hospitalizations, the last of which occurred in July of 2016. Still unstable after his release from the hospital, he experienced a psychotic episode on August 1, 2016 and suffered from the delusion that his daughter had been kidnapped. During this episode Jeremy assaulted several individuals at a convenience store. He was arrested and taken to the Adams County Jail. Upon intake screening, jailers noted that Jeremy, who was 38 years old at the time, was physically healthy but had a history of mental health illness with recent hospitalization. The Jail officers observed Jeremy’s symptoms right from the start, reporting that he was agitated and suffered from auditory and visual hallucinations. He was placed on suicide watch on August 3, 2016. Jeremy would spend the rest of his life—almost two months—in a dark, cool padded segregation cell.”

“Jeremy’s mental and physical condition quickly deteriorated to the point where he was naked in his cell, uncommunicative, and refusing to eat, drink or take his medications. On September 15, 2016 (two weeks before Jeremy’s death) a nurse contractor documented his decline and predicted his death in a “To Whom It May Concern” memo (see attached). The nurse wrote:

I am writing this letter on behalf of Jeremy Oswalt…[h]e has been refusing his trays/drinks/meds off and on since [September 6, 2016]. Most recently, he has refused any attempts at basic hygiene…Over the course of the last 6 weeks I have seen his mental capacities deteriorate from being questionable with basic needs to denying any attempt at that. He has been in seclusion from others for this entire time of his incarceration…He currently has been without any antipsychotics for about 10 days. As of my evaluation today, Mr. Oswalt is entirely unaware of his current surroundings, time or events. He is unable to hold a basic conversation or make informed decisions about his health and wellbeing. His speech is weak, he has lost a significant amount of weight, and his thoughts are not intact…I also feel he has become more medically unstable due to lack of adequate nutrition, hydration and cleanliness of his cell…I feel that his mental capacity has deteriorated to the point that he is a grave danger to himself or others.”

“Sheriff Rekeweg, Jail Commander Miller, and the jail officers ignored the nurse’s warning. Instead, Jeremy spent the last two weeks of his life in a dark segregation cell, lying naked on a cold, concrete floor. Jeremy was not eating, drinking very little, and not taking his prescribed antipsychotic medications. His cell was littered with trash, feces and urine. September 16, 2016 was the last day Jeremy was taken out of his segregation cell. Jail officers handcuffed Jeremy, strapped him into a restraint chair while naked, put a hood over his head, and took him to the service garage where buckets of water were dumped over him. Jeremy was then put back in the cold, dark cell. Jeremy’s movements became less purposeful over the next few days. He can be seen on jail video trembling and shivering. He never got off the floor. From the early morning hours of September 27, 2016 until the early morning hours of September 28, 2016, a period of nearly 24 hours, not one Jail Officer set foot in the segregation cell to check on Jeremy’s well-being as he lapsed into a coma. Finally, shortly after 4 AM on September 28, 2016, a Jail Officer entered the cell and found Jeremy face down and unresponsive. He was then transported to Adams County Memorial Hospital where emergency personnel were unable to revive him. Significantly, ambulance personnel and emergency personnel at the hospital applied heating pads, administered warm IV fluids, and wrapped Jeremy with a warming blanket, but after two hours his core body temperature still never reached a point where it could even be recorded. Hypothermia, lack of hydration, and lack of nutrition all contributed to Jeremy’s tragic and unnecessary death.”

“Sheriff Rekeweg, Jail Commander Miller, and the jail officers named in this lawsuit all watched Jeremy die a slow death. It was obvious at least two weeks before his death that Jeremy needed to be taken to the hospital on an emergency basis. The Defendants’ actions and inactions tortuously and illegally deprived Jeremy of his Constitutional rights, and subject them to liability under both Indiana state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for their deliberate indifference to Jeremy’s serious medical condition.”

“The Indiana State Police investigated Jeremy’s death and uncovered the tragic facts outlined in the lawsuit filed today. Although the Adams County prosecutor declined to file criminal charges in this matter, perhaps due to the systemic nature of the jail’s failings, the family fully intends to seek justice through the civil courts. Jeremy’s family, including his parents, siblings and young daughter, hope that this lawsuit will bring public awareness to the perilous plight of those individuals in county jails who suffer from mental illnesses.”

Stephen M. Wagner
WAGNER REESE, LLP
11939 North Meridian Street
Carmel, IN 46032
Tel: (317) 569-0000
Fax: (317) 569-8088
Email: SWagner@InjuryAttorneys.com

Attorney for the Oswalt Family

Notes

  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates,” (December 2006), available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf.
  2. Henry J. Steadman and others, “Prevalence of Serious Mental Illness among Jail Inmates,” Psychiatric Services 60 (6) (2009):761–765.
  3. Phil Schaenman and others, “Opportunities for Cost Savings in Corrections without Sacrificing Service Quality: Inmate Health Care,” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, February 2013), available at http://www.urban.org/research/publication/opportunities-cost-savings-corrections-without-sacrificing-service-quality; Christian Henrichson, Joshua Rinaldi and Ruth Delaney, “The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration,” (New York: Vera Institute, May 2015), available at http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/price-of-jails.pdf.
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