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Ind. county pays $7.25M settlement over pretrial detainee’s death

Though a settlement has been reached, the case isn’t over; the lawsuit will proceed against the Jackson County Jail’s healthcare

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By Julia Marnin
The Charlotte Observer

JACKSON COUNTY, Ind. — A 29-year-old pretrial detainee died after losing nearly 45 pounds in 20 days inside a windowless, solitary-confinement jail cell, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Joshua McLemore — who was arrested during a mental health crisis at a hospital — barely ate, drank or slept at the Jackson County Jail in Indiana, where he was under constant video surveillance, the lawsuit says.

McLemore was “neither tried nor convicted of the alleged crime for which he was arrested” because he died on Aug. 10, 2021, from extreme malnutrition and dehydration, according to the lawsuit.

In April, McLemore’s aunt Melita Ladner sued Jackson County, Sheriff Rick Meyer, jail staff members and the facility’s health care provider, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc., over her nephew’s death, McClatchy News reported.

Jackson County has now paid $7.25 million to settle the lawsuit’s claims against them, Seattle-based law firm Budge & Heipt, PLLC announced in a Dec. 6 news release. The firm represents Ladner and McLemore’s estate.

A historic settlement

This is the largest legal settlement over a jail death in Indiana’s history, according to the law firm.

“More than anything, I want this to be a wake-up call to Jackson County and every other jail,” Ladner said in the release.

“That was also the goal of Josh’s late mother, Rhonda McLemore,” Ladner added.

Rhonda McLemore died in December 2022, more than a year after her son’s death.

Ed Budge, an attorney for Ladner and McLemore’s estate, said in a statement that “the size of the settlement reflects the egregiousness of the jail’s mistreatment of Josh.”

McClatchy News contacted attorney R. Jeffrey Lowe, who represented Jackson County and other county officials, including Sheriff Meyer and jail staff members, for comment on Dec. 6 and didn’t receive a response.

In June 2022, Jackson County Prosecutor Jeffrey A. Chalfant released his findings after a nine-month state police investigation into McLemore’s death and determined no single jail employee committed a crime.

However, he concluded “McLemore most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention by Jackson County Jail staff as a group.”

Though a settlement has been reached, the case isn’t over. The lawsuit will proceed against Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc.

McClatchy News contacted attorneys representing the organization for comment on Dec. 6 and didn’t receive a response.

Jessica Young, the organization’s president, told McClatchy News in April that “we take criticisms of the care provided by our team seriously.”

She didn’t comment further due to federal privacy and confidentiality laws.

The circumstances before Joshua McLemore’s detainment

McLemore was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, and raised in nearby Long Beach by his mother, according to the lawsuit.

He liked to read, play chess and video games, and watch sports, the complaint filed in April says.

In high school, McLemore began having issues with drug use and “undiagnosed mental illness” before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to the complaint.

After graduating from Long Beach High School, he attended Mississippi State University.

In November 2020, McLemore moved to Seymour, Indiana, about 60 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

On July 20, 2021, McLemore was found naked and incoherent at his home during a welfare check, the complaint says.

He was taken to Schneck Medical Center, where he had an “acute psychotic episode” and was arrested, according to his attorneys.

McLemore was accused of pulling a nurse’s hair, leading to his arrest, the complaint says.

‘Wasted away in front of their eyes’

McLemore was taken to Jackson County Jail in underwear and handcuffs and led to “Padded Cell 7,” a small, isolation cell, the complaint says.

Jail surveillance footage reviewed by Ladner’s attorneys showed McLemore “in what appears to be a state of active psychosis for the entire duration of his detention, naked, staring into space, playing with his food, rolling on the floor in his own feces and urine …” the news release said.

McLemore was unable to communicate his need to use the bathroom to jail guards because of his mental state, the complaint notes. Because of this, he’d urinate and defecate on the cell floor, according to the complaint.

At one point, guards strapped McLemore in a restraint device as another prisoner cleaned his cell, the complaint says. He was left in this device for more than four and a half hours, which went against jail policy and violated his constitutional rights, the complaint says.

“The video we obtained shows a young man in severe mental and physical distress, with no ability to care for himself, being ignored by the people responsible for his safety and wellbeing,” Budge said in the release.

McLemore weighed 153 pounds on Aug. 8, 2021, his last day in the jail, down from 197.8 pounds when he arrived, according to the lawsuit.

“He wasted away in front of their eyes,” Hank Balson, another Budge and Heipt PLLC attorney representing the case, told McClatchy News in April.

McLemore died two days later at a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was airlifted to and was on life support by the morning of Aug. 10 , the complaint says.

His mother made the “excruciating” choice to take her comatose son off life support, according to the complaint.

In an autopsy report, the Hamilton County Coroner in Ohio listed McLemore’s cause of death as “multiple organ failure due to refusal to eat or drink” and an “altered mental status” caused by untreated schizophrenia.

Methamphetamine withdrawal was also listed as a factor related to his death.

More than 300 people died in Indiana’s jails from 2010 to 2021, according to an Indianapolis Star investigation. Overcrowding, a lack of staffing and other factors have contributed to the “crisis” in the state’s jails, the newspaper reports.

“No other person should be made to suffer as Josh did, and I hope other families will be spared from similar pain,” Ladner said in the news release.

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