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Sister Describes “A System Designed for Confusion”

Nov 11th, 2012 | Category: Lead Article

The sister continues:

“The reality is that an inmate’s care and circumstances will improve when outside  agencies start to look in and ask questions. Our family is absolutely at sea when it comes  to legal procedures and the county jail system – a system seemingly designed for  confusion – and its inner workings. Having someone with some expertise advising on  who to contact and what questions to ask has been most helpful and comforting . My  brother’s case is still complicated and he has a long way to go legally and with his mental health – no one has a magic button that will make everything better and easier, but I truly appreciate the important work this organization is doing for a forgotten population. It makes a huge difference to our family to have someone working in our corner.”

We so appreciate the writer’s eloquent acknowledgement of our efforts. However, there is also some food for thought here: first and foremost, it pays to get an outside group or agency to inquire at the jail whenever an inmate needs help! Secondly, shouldn’t there be a hotline or some kind of omsbudsman where families can ask for help? Texas Jail Project doesn’t have the means to answer all these questions and many people never get any help–and that’s how tragic jail deaths occur.

"Death In Llano County Jail Sparks Lawsuit" Texas Tribune, November 8, 2012

When the Llano County sheriff arrived at her home in August 2011, Shirley Appell thought that  her son, Shawn, had escaped from the county jail.

The 45-year-old Air Force veteran had been arrested five months earlier after driving his car into  a local tire shop, which she says was because he was suffering from schizophrenia.

But the sheriff, Bill Blackburn, came to tell her that her son had died in the jail. He had been suffering from delusions, telling anyone who would listen, “I got demons in my head” and beating his head against the wall. After 24 hours, he died of “blunt force trauma to the head,” according to the autopsy report.

Now, Appell is filing a wrongful-death lawsuit in a federal civil court against Donny Stewart, the jail administrator; Scottie Scoggins, a sergeant and jail supervisor; and Blackburn, saying their neglect paved the way for her son to commit suicide. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages.

“They neglected to take care of my son,” she said Thursday at a news conference held by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing her in the civil action. “There’s many mentally ill people, and we have some in Llano. I don’t want this to ever, ever happen to anyone else.”

In July, a Llano County grand jury indicted Stewart, the jail administrator, and Scoggins, a sergeant and jail supervisor, on charges of “injury to a disabled person by omission” in the case. Tom Kelley, a press officer for the attorney general’s office, which will prosecute the case, said no trial date had been set.

Michael Shaunessy, the attorney representing the jail employees and the sheriff, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Shortly after the criminal indictment, he told The Llano News that the jailers had sent their sympathy to the family, but had not done anything wrong.

Appell’s attorneys say the problem is broader than just this one death in Llano. “Our county jails have become the biggest institution for holding people with mental health problems,” said lawyer Brian McGiverin, who works for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “This is a particularly gruesome example of a problem that is statewide.”

Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said that administrative rules set out by his office require each jail to “have an approved mental health and suicide prevention plan,” which includes a mental history check on each person admitted to the jail. “Dealing with inmates with mental disabilities is a continuing problem,” he said. “Whenever you speak with administrators they’ll say this is the biggest challenge they face.”

Appell said her son served in the U.S. Air Force from 1984 to 1988, and learned to work as a mechanic in Okinawa. After an honorable discharge, he found work repairing oil rigs and airplanes.

Neither she nor the lawyers know what triggered his schizophrenia, but Appell says his paranoia grew with drug use. “Once he thought I was going to kill him,” she said. “He wouldn’t eat the food I cooked or anything.” McGiverin added that “self-medication for mental illness” is common among veterans.

In April last year, Appell said, her son thought that the man who owned a Llano tire shop had been planning to kill him, and so he ran his car into the shop and was booked into the Llano County Jail on criminal mischief charges.

Five months later, administrators from the Llano County Jail sent Appell to Scott & White Hospital, where he was treated for a laceration to his forehead, because he had beaten it against the wall. “After deputies returned Shawn to a cell,” McGiverin wrote in the civil action submitted Thursday, “he resumed beating his head against the wall.”

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Anonymous

To this family: Especially Ms. Shirley Appell , I am so sorry for your loss. I want to thank you for your courage to continue this great noble cause for Justice; while no justice will ever right the criminal manner by which your son was treated- Perhaps your deeds will help prevent another mother and family from facing the greatest loss a parent can ever know. As one who knows Mental Illness issues all to well and one who knows a failed Judicial system and the many corrupt Jails and Sheriffs agencies especially in Georgia and recognizing the nature of… Read more »

Anonymous

My husband refused to take his medication and he eventually assaulted me. While spending 3 months in jail with 37 other inmates I was concerned because he was still not taking his medication and he does not know that he is ill. I decided to call the DA and let them know that he was mentally ill and the crimes he committed were linked to his illness. I am glad I did this because he was moved to a better location with less inmates. I was also able to provide proof of his stay in a psychiatric hospital in the… Read more »

Anonymous

Dear Ms .Shirley Appell: My deepest sympathy to you and your family and many thanks to our fallen soldier sacrificed so much for our nation’s freedom. I pray your efforts will help others who are experiencing problems with the incarceration of mentally ill family members. The Texas Jail Project has truly been an agency who cares. We have been waiting patiently for psychiatric help for my sister 41 who has been sitting in a jail cell in County since June 11, 2012. The day of the incident which caused her incarceration, the family was trying to have her admitted to… Read more »

Anonymous

May God Bless You and Your Family.

Anonymous

Dear Ms .Shirley Appell: My deepest sympathy to you and your family and many thanks to our fallen soldierwho sacrificed so much for our nation’s freedom. I pray your efforts will help others who are experiencing problems with the incarceration of mentally ill family members. The Texas Jail Project has truly been an agency who cares. We have been waiting patiently for psychiatric help for my sister 41 who has been sitting in a jail cell in since June 11, 2012. I pray she is able to receive help soon. The county is like family and we all are praying… Read more »