The mother of a Sangamon County jail inmate who killed herself last year has sued the county and the state of Illinois, claiming that each entity failed to adequately address mental health needs.
Tiffany Rusher, 27, died at Memorial Medical Center nearly a year ago, 12 days after she was found hanging in her cell. Just how Rusher, who had a long history of suicide attempts, was able to find the means to commit suicide will be an issue in the lawsuit, according to Alan Mills, attorney for Rusher’s mother, Kelli Andrews.
“We are very interested to find that out,” Mills said.
Rusher, who was on suicide watch, was found hanging from a torn strip of hand towel, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield. Rusher should not have had such material in her possession, given her history of suicide attempts, Mills said. “I would say not only should it not have been allowed, someone should have seen her tie it off,” the attorney said.
At times, an observation window on Rusher’s cell was covered so that jailers couldn’t see inside, according to the lawsuit filed March 12 in U.S. District Court in Springfield. It isn’t clear why the window would be covered or whether it was covered when Rusher hanged herself, but attorneys for Rusher’s mother say that covering the window of a suicide cell is contrary to suicide prevention protocols. By contrast, guards at Logan Correctional Center, where Rusher served five years before landing in the county jail, put her in a cell with a clear Plexiglass wall and watched her 24/7 for months, with a light on the entire time, according to attorneys for Rusher’s mother.
Sangamon County sheriff’s officials did not respond to a voice mail seeking comment.
Rusher was transferred to the jail from McFarland Mental Health Center in December of 2016 and charged with battery after she got into an altercation with another resident. A crack addict who sold her body for drugs, Rusher attempted suicide at least 10 times at Logan, where she served time for sexual abuse of a minor, according to the lawsuit. She also repeatedly cut herself, bit herself, hit her head against walls and swallowed pens, toilet paper and other inedible objects.
After eight months in a Logan suicide cell, Rusher was committed to McFarland in the spring of 2016 upon completion of her prison sentence. She tried to strangle herself twice at McFarland, according to the lawsuit, and also swallowed large objects that had to be removed with endoscopic instruments.
McFarland informed the county jail of Rusher’s mental problems and history of suicide attempts, according to the lawsuit, and a social worker who saw her in the jail concluded that she was a “high-risk” inmate. A jail physician determined that she had bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder.
County jailers stripped Rusher naked and put her in solitary confinement with nothing but a suicide-proof blanket, according to the lawsuit. She remained in solitary confinement with no possessions for more than three months, according to the lawsuit, and the isolation worsened her already frail mental condition.
“Depriving anyone of meaningful social contact for longer than a few days is harmful to their mental health and is considered to be torture under internationally recognized standards,” attorneys for Rusher’s mother write in the lawsuit. “It is certain to make a person worse, not better, increasing their risk of suicide.”
Before she was found hanging, the jail twice sent Rusher to Memorial Medical Center, first after she swallowed a spoon and again after she swallowed a toothbrush. She tried to strangle herself with a strap taken from a medical boot worn over an injured foot. She also swallowed a plastic bag, attempted to swallow an apple core and stuffed her nose with toilet paper, then complained that she could not breathe.
The plaintiffs argue that the county’s failure to properly care for Rusher violated her constitutional rights as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act. The plaintiffs also allege that the county violated the federal Rehabilitation Act, which is supposed to ensure that disabled people aren’t denied participation in programs or activities solely on the basis of their disabilities.
In addition to suing Sangamon County, Rusher’s mother is also suing Gov. Bruce Rauner, the state Department of Corrections and Wexford Health Sources, which holds the contract to provide health care to inmates. Plaintiff’s attorneys say that Rusher belonged in a psychiatric hospital, not a prison, and the eight months she spent in solitary confinement at Logan with scant psychiatric care amounted to torture.
After Rusher swallowed objects at Logan, she had to request toilet paper, and a guard watched while she wiped herself after defecating, according to the lawsuit. She was required to sleep with her hands visible, plaintiff’s attorneys say, and guards observed closely when she changed sanitary pads while she was menstruating.
During an appropriations committee hearing last year, state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, questioned why Rusher was imprisoned instead of hospitalized. But she defended prison officials after Mills told legislators that Rusher was on life support after hanging herself.
“I know you may not agree with the time she spent in that segregation room, but I think the Department of Corrections did its job,” Mayfield said. “They kept her alive. It may not have been the greatest of circumstances, but when she left there, she left there alive. You do have to acknowledge that. It’s a prison. It’s not a hospital.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.