Lawsuit: COs didn't leave inmate in actual freezer, but in a frigid cell called 'the freezer'
Anthony Mitchell died of hypothermia after spending two weeks in a jail during a mental health break
By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
WALKER COUNTY, Ala. — A revised lawsuit says guards did not leave inmate Anthony Mitchell in an actual freezer but instead put him in a frigid jail cell with air from the outside known as “the freezer,” resulting in his death.
Mitchell, 33, died of hypothermia after spending two weeks in a North Alabama jail during a mental health break, according to the revised complaint filed in federal court Monday in Alabama’s northern district.
The original suit suggested that, given Mitchell’s condition at the hospital, he was likely held in a freezer or other cold environment in the jail in Walker County. Lawyers for police quickly replied, calling the notion of a freezer a “scandalous” lie.
The revised suit alleges Mitchell was left for days in a frigid cell, lying in his own waste, and was denied water and anti-psychotic medication. When Mitchell began having a medical crisis, officers delayed in seeking medical help, leading to Mitchell’s death, according to the complaint.
The initial complaint, filed February 13, by Margaret Mitchell, Mitchell’s mother, and the administrator of his estate, alleged he was placed in a restraint chair in a jail freezer and left to freeze to death by officers. The amended complaint also makes no mention of Mitchell being placed in a restraint chair.
In their response to the earlier complaint in the case, filed in February, attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office said the claim that Mitchell had been placed in a freezer was speculative and false.
“These allegations intentionally created a firestorm of derision that swept not only these defendants but law enforcement in general and caused criminal investigations to be opened against the defendants,’’ the sheriff’s legal answer states, referring to an FBI investigation into the jail that began after the suit was filed.
Attorneys for the Walker County Jail declined to comment for this story citing ongoing litigation.
At attorney for Mitchell said his staff went through hundreds of hours of videos filed by defendants in court along with jail medical records and incident reports to draft the amended complaint.
“Defendants have filed a motion to seal the video filed in court. We intend to oppose that, at least as to portions showing what happened to Tony Mitchell,” said attorney Jon Goldfarb.
According to the suit, officers intentionally exposed Mitchell to frigid temperatures in his cell on the nights of January 25 and 26, shortly before he died, by blowing cold air into the cell, or allowing outside air in, when the temperatures were in the low thirties.
[EARLIER: Ala. jail nurses challenge claims of abuse and neglect of mentally ill man who died in custody]
“If it was simply outside air blowing into the cells, that air was frigid,” the amended complaint states.
Left in his feces, denied help, complaint alleges
Mitchell was taken to Walker County Jail on January 12 after his family called 911 to get him help because he was experiencing psychotic delusions.
A longtime methamphetamine user, he had been using drugs, according to the complaint. Mitchell lost so much weight, he was unrecognizable to his relatives several months after his father’s funeral.
According to the Walker County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, Mitchell was apprehended at home. When deputies arrived, they saw him in his front yard, where he fired at them before running into the backyard, the complaint states. The deputies arrested Mitchell and took him to jail.
Officials for the office of Walker County Sheriff Nicholas Smith assured his relatives he would get help, according to the amended complaint. “We’re going to detox him and then we’ll see how much of his brain is left,” Public Affairs Officer T.J. Armstrong told Mitchell’s cousin Steve, according to the complaint.
But once at the Walker County Jail, Mitchell was denied medication, medical treatment, free access to water and a toilet, the complaint alleges.
Mitchell was left to “detox,” naked in an isolation room, called BK5, the “drunk tank,” according to the updated complaint, which is meant to hold detainees temporarily. It has no furniture and has a drain that solid feces cannot go through. Security footage shows Mitchell being brought out of the room naked, covered in feces, on several occasions.
In one instance, guards tased him naked as he was brought out of the cell, according to the complaint. At no point did he appear to resist, according to the complaint.
“Tony was then driven out of the cell with the taser wires still in him, and he collapsed onto the floor outside the cell door,” the complaint states, adding that officers dragged him naked by his ankle into the bathroom because he was unable to stand, despite the availability of a wheelchair.
“The sliding likely left scrapes on Tony’s back, creating an extreme risk of infection and sepsis from lying on the bare concrete, feces-contaminated floor of BK5 without medical attention.”
When he was being tased, Mitchell’s false teeth fell out of his mouth and were confiscated, according to the complaint, making it impossible for him to chew his food, the complaint alleges. Lawyers contend he was given three meals a day in a brown paper sack, called a “suicide sack,” and made to eat with his fingers. The complaint also says he was taken the bathroom only six times in two weeks.
After an initial visit to the medical area upon booking into the jail, Mitchell got no medical treatment, according to the complaint, until the morning of his death.
His records show medical workers stated they were unable to do a medical intake with Mitchell because he was uncooperative and combative. Mental health professionals were not able to provide treatment because they could not communicate effectively with Mitchell through the closed cell door, according to the complaint.
“(Staff) noted feces on the door and food pushed out of the bottom of the cell door. According to CO report, patient has been extremely confused, agitated and combative,” a mental health practitioner’s report from January 17 stated, adding it was hard to hear what Mitchell was saying through the door.
[EARLIER: Lawsuit: Mentally ill man froze to death in Ala. jail]
Jail guards said that Mitchell believed he was Jesus and was spreading feces on the wall and throwing food trays, according to the complaint. A sign posted on his cell door prevented him from getting help, the complaint alleges.
By January 26, the day before his death, videos show Mitchell had not left his isolation cell since January 21, according to the complaint. He had not had a cup of water brought to him since January 23.
Death by hypothermia
Mitchell’s isolation room, BK5, was called “the freezer” by some longtime staff and inmates because staff had the ability to make the room very cold,’ today’s complaint states.
“Mitchell, already stressed by dehydration from receiving no water for over two days, (became) severely hypothermic overnight and into the morning hours.”
In the early morning, a jail nurse noted Mitchell was cool to the touch and that he should be sent to the ER. Correction staff stated the nurse told them it was fine to wait until 6 a.m. to send Mitchell to the hospital, according to the complaint. Mitchell was not taken to the hospital until about 9 a.m. on January 27.
Public statements from the Sheriff’s Office after Mitchell’s death stated that he was “alert and conscious” when he left the jail, but video of him being taken to the hospital appears to show that he was not conscious.
When Mitchell arrived at Walker Baptist Medical Center at 9:23 a.m. he had no pulse and only was only breathing two to four times a minute.
“I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration, but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72 (degrees) while someone is incarcerated in jail. The cause of his hypothermia is not clear,” a doctor stated in Mitchell’s medical report.
Doctors attempted to resuscitate Mitchell but were not successful.
Mitchell was pronounced dead at 1:15 p.m.
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