DA: Pa. jail followed protocol in pepper spraying of mentally ill inmate
While no laws were broken, the DA said a jail isn't an appropriate environment for inmates with mental illness
By Jo Ciavaglia
Bucks County Courier Times
BUCKS COUNTY, Pa. — Bucks County prison corrections officers committed no criminal acts when they used pepper spray on a severely mentally ill inmate, the district attorney's office announced Wednesday.
District Attorney Matt Weintraub revealed the findings of his investigation at a meeting of the Bucks County Prison Oversight Board, which concluded that the corrections officers followed proper use-of-force protocols with Kim Stringer, 28, of Lower Makefield.
But Weintraub, who sits on the board, added that while no laws were broken, a county jail is not an appropriate environment for individuals with severe mental illness, and reforms are needed to meet the needs of these inmates.
"There were other better options for her, especially once she deteriorated," Weintraub said.
His investigation found the the county worked "exhaustively" to find Stringer an appropriate mental health placement, but could not find a psychiatric hospital with an open bed willing to accept her, Weintraub said.
County Commissioners Chair Diane Marseglia also announced Wednesday that she is meeting this month with the Bucks County president judge to explore creating a mental health court.
Bucks County is the only county in the Philadelphia region that does not have a mental health court, which diverts offenders with severe mental illness into a judicially supervised program and community-based treatment.
Stringer has a long-documented history of mental illness including 52 contacts with Falls police over the last six years, according to the department.
She was incarcerated at Bucks County's jail for 71 days after Falls police arrested her in April for allegedly punching a woman and threatening to kill a neighbor during what her parents described as a psychotic break.
At the time of her arrest, her parents, Martha and Paul Stringer, say their daughter's mental health steadily deteriorated after she stopped taking her court-ordered medication in October to treat her bipolar and borderline personality disorders.
She is currently being treated at Norristown State Hospital, a 375-bed long-term psychiatric hospital in Montgomery County where she was moved on June 17.
The transfer came days after a concerned inmate and her mother tracked down the Stringers and told them that Kim Stringer was on suicide watch, unresponsive, subjected to pepper spray and other alleged mistreatment at the jail.
Until that point, her parents said they had not had contact with Stringer after her arrest in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and what little information they received about her condition in the jail was not negative, they said.
While she was incarcerated, Stringer twice cut herself with a pen and piece of plastic, stuck items into an electrical outlet, pounded her head onto a sink and wall in her cell, and attempted to cover her prison cell window, Weintraub said his investigation found.
She also urinated and defecated on her suicide smock, which was the only clothing allowed inmates on suicide watch and refused to shower.
Weintraub called two incidents where officers used pepper spray on Stringer, on May 11 and May 20, "very difficult to watch."
In both incidents, Weintraub said the officers followed use-of-force protocol "to the letter." One ordered Stringer 30 times to comply before deploying pepper spray, he said.
Weintraub added that Stringer was medically checked after the incidents. There was no evidence she was physically injured.
"The guards within their protocol treated her appropriately and fairly," he added.
The investigation included statements from three inmate monitor whistleblowers who were responsible for observing Stringer's behavior while she was on suicide watch. The inmates were the ones who brought the situation to the attention of the Stringers on June 12.
Martha Stringer who attended the prison oversight board meeting remotely, expressed disappointment at what she called a lack of "concrete steps toward change," despite an investigation that described the treatment of her daughter as "horrific and sickening."
In an email, she also raised concerns about a potential "conflict of interest" since the district attorney and commissioners sit on the board, though they are also responsible for oversight and investigation of incidents involving the prison.
"I don't know in what universe pepper spraying someone on suicide watch is proper protocol," Martha Stringer added. "If it's an attempt to prevent someone from committing suicide or self -harm, because they don't want a suicide or self harm to occur in prison, then the protocol serves only to protect the jail, not the individual suffering from a psychotic episode."
©2020 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.