A man arrested during a mental health crisis was put in a solitary confinement cell at an Arkansas county jail — where he died of malnutrition and dehydration after he couldn’t afford bail, his brother’s lawsuit says.
Larry Eugene Price Jr. was 50 years old, homeless and weighed 185 pounds when he arrived at Sebastian County jail and had his bail set at $1,000 in August 2020, according to a complaint filed in federal court on Jan. 13.
Over the course of a year, Price “awaited his day in court,” and was neglected by jail staff as he lost nearly 100 pounds, resembling a famine victim, the complaint says. On the day of his death, Price weighed 90 pounds with a “morbidly skeletal appearance” on August 29, 2021, according to the complaint.
Now his brother Rodney Price is suing Sebastian County, Turn Key Health Clinics, LLC, the healthcare corporation providing medical services to people at the jail, a Turn Key psychiatrist and nurse, and several other unnamed defendants over Price’s death.
Hank Balson, an attorney representing the case, told McClatchy News in a statement on Jan. 16 that “when (Price) was brought to the jail, custody and medical staff knew almost immediately that he was severely mentally ill and unable to care for himself.”
“They kept him locked up in solitary confinement for over a year, idly watching as he slowly succumbed to his illness, losing more than a third of his body weight, and ultimately dying from acute dehydration and malnutrition,” Balson said. “He never even got his day in court.”
McClatchy News contacted Sebastian County Judge Steve Hotz, who serves as the county government’s chief executive officer, and Turn Key for comment on Jan. 16 and didn’t immediately receive a response.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Hotz said an internal review into Price’s death led by the county sheriff is underway.
“The county places a high priority on the safety of every person in our jail,” Hotz told the outlet. “We have medical personnel available to treat inmates in need of care.”
Why was Price arrested and put in jail?
Before his death, Price, who was well-known to police in Fort Smith, was unemployed, unmarried, had paranoid schizophrenia, causing him to “suffer from bouts of psychosis,” and had intellectual developmental disorder, according to the lawsuit.
He regularly visited the Fort Smith Police Department, where it was “common for him to come inside and shout profanities or otherwise behave chaotically,” according to the complaint, which cites a police report.
On Aug. 19, 2020, Price walked inside the police station, verbally threatened officers and made gun gestures with his hand, the complaint said. It argues that this behavior was a clear “expression of his mental illness.”
When Price wouldn’t calm down, officers called for backup after one decided it “would be in Mr. Price’s ‘own best interest’ to have officers ‘place him under arrest or otherwise try to calm him,’” the complaint says.
As a result, Price was taken to jail, charged with first-degree terroristic threatening and had his bail set at $1,000, according to the complaint.
Price enters Sebastian County Jail
When Price was booked in jail, he was “physically healthy and well-nourished,” and was 6 feet 2 inches tall weighing 185 pounds, the complaint says. Despite his physical condition, he had serious mental health needs, the complaint says.
The jail staff were familiar with Price after he had been detained there previously in connection with disorderly conduct and trespassing charges, according to the lawsuit.
Because of his mental state, they placed him in solitary confinement, where he would deteriorate over the next year, the complaint says.
In November 2020, when Price refused to take his antipsychotic medication, instead of seeking a solution, a Turn Key psychiatrist discontinued his prescription, according to the complaint.
Afterward, the psychiatrist “never made any effort to follow up with Mr. Price or to address his serious mental health needs,” the complaint says.
Price asks to see a doctor
By December, Price was drinking and eating much less and one month later, he reported to jail medical staff, “I am sick and have lost a lot of weight[.] I need to see a doctor” in January 2021, according to the complaint.
However, the jail didn’t fulfill his request to see a doctor because he was described as “non-compliant,” the complaint states.
Three weeks later, a Turn Key nurse was told Price was “eating his own feces and drinking his own urine,” according to the complaint.
“Larry Price suffered in the tortured throes of his untreated mental disorder for months on end as jail healthcare and security staff watched him waste away — apathetic to his life-threatening medical and mental health needs and to the cruelty of his confinement,” the complaint says.
During the month Price died in August, jail guards logged more than 4,000 well-being checks of him writing “inmate and cell OK,” according to the complaint.
On Aug. 29, 2021, corrections officers found Price without a pulse, lying in standing water and his own urine and unresponsive in his cell, the complaint says. Then, they called for an ambulance and started CPR.
Staff didn’t attempt to revive Price with an automated external defibrillator because of the amount of liquid in his cell, according to the complaint.
When Price was brought to a nearby hospital, he was immediately pronounced dead from malnutrition and dehydration and weighed about 90 pounds, the complaint said.
Now the lawsuit over his death is demanding a trial by jury, arguing Price’s 14th Amendment rights, specifically his right to medical and mental health treatment, was denied.
It also accuses Turn Key and its employees of medical negligence and the corrections officers of violating correctional standards.
“(The defendants) had a constitutional duty to protect him from harm and to provide him with necessary care,” Balson told McClatchy News.