Man sues Travis County, officers after saying he attempted suicide in jail: 'Broken system' (2024)

Bianca Moreno-PazAustin American-Statesman

Man sues Travis County, officers after saying he attempted suicide in jail: 'Broken system' (1)

Man sues Travis County, officers after saying he attempted suicide in jail: 'Broken system' (2)

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First, Jason Walker tried strangling himself with his shirt collar in his Travis County Jail cell, he said. When that proved unsuccessful, he attempted suicide by diving headfirst off a desk.

Walker said the impact fractured his C5 vertebra, compressing his spinal cord and paralyzing him. Jail employees found him in a pool of his own blood.

For several days leading up to his suicide attempt, Walker had been experiencing a psychotic break. Two years later, Walker, 33, has filed a lawsuit against Travis County, the city of Austin, individual jail employees, Austin Police Department officers and Travis County sheriff’s deputies.

His complaint, which demands a jury trial, maintains that his civil rights were infringed upon and that both law enforcement and jail employees overlooked the signs of his mental illness. Instead of receiving care for his psychosis, he was arrested, charged with criminal trespass and then placed in solitary confinement for about 60 hours, in the lowest tier of the jail's mental health housing.

A significant portion of people who are jailed have unchecked mental illnesses because there is nowhere else for them to go, according to Dr. Carol Tamminga, a psychiatrist briefed by the American-Statesman on the case. Law enforcement agencies are often unequipped and untrained to handle people exhibiting psychotic behavior, she said.

None of the defendants have responded in court as of Friday, federal court records show.

Travis County does not comment on pending litigation, county spokesperson Hector Nieto said in an email when reached by the Statesman. Kristen Dark, a spokesperson for the Travis County Jail, said Walker’s allegations “are not fully accurate” but declined to elaborate because the case is pending.

“The Travis County Sheriff’s Office takes matters such as this very seriously and continues to review and evaluate these allegations,” Dark said in an email.

The city of Austin, in a statement shared by spokesperson David Ochsner, did not directly address Walker’s claims when reached for comment.

“The City of Austin recognizes that situations like this incident are challenging for all parties,” the statement said. “We are prepared to defend the City and the actions of its officers and will respond through the court process.”

Walker said his suicide attempt has left him with asymmetrical paralysis and extensive nerve pain, among other physical and mental ailments. He believes the lawsuit will help him learn what happened to him inside the jail and achieve closure.

“Since (my arrest), it's been a nightmare,” he said. “I’m just trying to piece back together my life, but it's been destroyed.”

Walker describes 'mental health crisis' before arrest

Before his psychotic break, Walker had a full-time job as a project manager for a construction company, had a rescue pitbull and was very active, playing pickleball and other sports. He had struggled with various mental health issues, including anxiety and bipolar disorder, that escalated to a "mental health crisis" the day he was arrested, March 10, 2022, according to his lawsuit.

He pointed to the stress of being laid off from his job and moving to a new apartment as the match that lit the fire.

It began with delusions that people were out to kill him. Walker recounted barricading himself inside his Northwest Austin apartment, a recollection that felt dreamlike: He had no control over his actions but could remember details and conversations. While walking his dog at about 2:30 a.m. March 10, Walker said he decided he could not return to his apartment, convinced that it had become unsafe.

Walker then scaled a patio railing to ask his neighbor for help. He pulled the screen off his door and tried to break into the apartment, the lawsuit said. The neighbor asked Walker to leave the patio and threatened to call the police.

Eight police officers responded to this call. On body-worn camera footage, obtained by the Statesman through a public information request, at least two police officers at the scene can be heard saying they believed Walker was on drugs, despite his repeated denial of any drug use. An officer can be heard saying, “I think he has mental issues.” The incident report, obtained through a public information request, notes Walker “was saying odd things that didn't make sense” and “appeared to be under the influence of some drug,” but it does not contain any mention of the officer’s concern about mental illness.

Police officers and deputies from the sheriff’s office arrested Walker and charged him with criminal trespass. As officers walked him to a patrol car, he panicked and screamed for help at least two dozen times, dragging his feet, bodycam footage shows. A jail intake form later observed that police “suspect(ed) meth.”

The Statesman sought Walker’s jail records through a public information request to Travis County, but the county denied the request, citing the pending litigation. Walker provided his jail records to the Statesman.

During his booking, Walker insisted that he was not a drug user and asked to be tested to prove his sobriety, he said. Available jail records do not indicate that he was ever tested for illicit substances or alcohol.

Even his 16.22 form, a screening form used to determine mental illness risks, was mostly incomplete. In the margins of the form, which was among the records Walker provided to the Statesman, a jail employee noted Walker refused to answer a question, remarking on his erratic behavior.

Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state regulatory agency for county and municipal jails, said people booked into jail who refuse to answer questions on the intake form must be treated as suicide risks until the form is successfully completed.

While records show Walker was given an immediate mental health referral and placed on psychiatric observation, he was never placed on suicide watch nor classified as a suicide risk.Instead, cell 108, where Walker attempted suicide twice, was an open psych cell, his jail file showed. These cells are for people experiencing psychiatric symptoms that significantly impact their functioning but are not an immediate risk to themselves or others, said Dark, the county jail spokesperson.

Travis County, citing security concerns, deferred Walker’s public information request for surveillance footage of his jail cell to the Texas attorney general’s office, according to an email Walker shared with the Statesman. The attorney general’s opinion indicated Walker could receive the footage; however, the sheriff’s office is now suing the attorney general’s office to prevent the footage’s release, according to a copy of the lawsuit provided by Walker.

From 2021 to 2024, the Travis County Jail reported 24 suicide attempts to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Dark said. While the Texas Rangers are responsible for investigating suicides, the jail conducts its own internal investigations into “serious” suicide attempts if the person could have died without the intervention of jail employees, she said.

Walker questions whether the Travis County Jail had sufficient staff to adequately monitor all people in its custody. Arecent Statesman investigationfound that a staffing shortage has plagued the jail, reaching an all-time high in 2022, the year Walker was arrested, with more than a third of officer positions vacant. While the shortage has been nominally addressed, the jail’s population continues to creep upward, rebounding to pre-pandemic levels, the analysis found.

The jail was found noncompliant in May 2023 and again in April 2024, afterreportsfrom the Texas Commission on Jail Standards connected two inmate deaths to a delay in observation intervals that exceeded 60 minutes, when observations should have been performed every 30 minutes.

Walker believes the effects of solitary confinement, coupled with a lack of sleep and psychosis, also contributed to his suicide attempts.

“Only later did I realize I was sitting in solitary confinement for 60 hours, deteriorating to the point of not even realizing what planet I was on,” he said.

People with mental illnesses frequently funneled into jails, advocates say

About 40% of people held in the Travis County Jail have unmet mental health needs, County Judge Andy Brown said.

The county jail has become a catchall for both lawbreakers and mentally ill people, due to a lack of appropriate facilities or programs to treat mental illness, according to Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of Texas Jail Project, a jail reform advocacy group.

The government "has funded the punitive systems, but have not funded the systems of care,” she said.

People arrested for minor grievances are sent into county jails to contain their law-breaking behaviors. For individuals without familial or mental health support, this can create a self-perpetuating cycle until they can receive care from a state hospital or until they die, Gundu said. She noted that the 2017 Sandra Bland Act should theoretically divert low-level offenders with mental illness or substance abuse issues to relevant treatment centers, but about 32 people died by suicide inside Texas county jails in 2022, Gundu’s advocacy group found.

“The numbers of those that have mental health diagnosis in our criminal legal systems is staggeringly high. (Incarceration) has become the stopgap solution for real mental health policy in our society,” said Robert Lilly, an organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “Prisons are not fit to handle the complex issues of those with mental health challenges.”

Mental health diversion in Travis County

County officials hope a mental health diversion program and facility — whose pilot is projected to launch in mid-August — at a cost of $6 million a year will offer respite to people picked up by police and EMS with mental illnesses.

The program, Brown said, will keep people without criminal intent out of a crowded jail. He believes it is “unacceptable” that county jails are the largest mental health providers in Texas. The diversion program will be modeled on similar programs in Nashville, Miami and Tucson.

The 25-bed facility will serve the needs of people with mental health needs, he said, with a maximum treatment time of 90 days. The long-term plan is to open a more robust facility, able to serve more people, Brown said.

Members of the Austin Police Department, Travis County sheriff’s office and Austin-Travis County EMS will receive mental health training conducted by Integral Care, beginning in early August,with a continuous roll-out over the first few months, saidHector Nieto, a county spokesperson.

Representatives from the two law enforcement agencies and EMS will participate in pilot task groups to address potential issues and improve cross-system collaboration, he said.

Seven weeks of hospital treatment

The first time Michelle Walker saw her son after his arrest and suicide attempt, he was on life support and intubated in the intensive care unit at Dell Seton Medical Center, she said. Despite working a full-time job, she returned to the hospital every day and often slept by his side, making sure to manually move his paralyzed limbs, aiding his chances to recover mobility. Walker called her his “rock” and main support system.

“Nobody thought he'd ever walk again. There were some difficult times where we didn't know if he was going to make it,” she said. Some hospital staff even encouraged her to take her son off life support.

A large blood clot was removed from one of his lungs during his nearly two-month stay at the hospital. Walker’s short-term memory was affected by medications, prompting him to ask his nurses daily whether his mother would be visiting. In response, Michelle hung a brightly colored sign near his bed, so he knew that she would be visiting every day.

“When I was in the ICU, everyone, and I mean every person there, told me the system had failed me,” Walker said.

By the time he was discharged May 2, 2022, he had incurred about $3 million in medical claims. His release from custody two days into his hospital stay meant his health insurance was largely responsible for his bills. It also meant that should he die, he would not be counted as an in-custody death.

Walker attends weekly physical therapy sessions, where he works on his mobility and strength with his dedicated occupational therapist. He has regained less than 10% of his mobility, he said, given how strong and physically active he was prior to his suicide attempt.

Though he has relearned to walk and function to an extent, he emphasized that looks are deceiving. His left arm is mostly paralyzed; his gait is affected by a limp; his muscles are atrophied on the left side of his body; and nerve pain affects his sleep nightly, further affecting his mental health, he said.

“I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life," Walker said. "I look in the mirror and I can't recognize who I am. I have a lot of soul searching to do and a lot of healing to do. And a lot of work to do, hopefully fixing this broken system.”

Statesman Local News Editor Vicky Camarillo contributed to this report.

Man sues Travis County, officers after saying he attempted suicide in jail: 'Broken system' (2024)
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