Family of deceased inmate sues Summit County Sheriff’s Office, citing ‘shameful history’ of ignoring medical needs
The family of a woman who died after an in-custody suicide attempt in 2016 filed suit on Wednesday against the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, claiming jail staff ignored the woman’s signs of distress, failed to provide her medication and showed “deliberate indifference” to her safety.
Jacqueline Bickford, 31, died in a hospital in April 2016 after hanging herself in her cell. The lawsuit claims her death fits a pattern of misconduct at the jail, including another death in 2013 and a serious assault the year before. Last year, Summit County reached a pair of settlements totaling $3.7 million for those two incidents.
“Summit County has a shameful history of exhibiting deliberate indifference to the serious needs of inmates,” claims the suit, filed in Denver federal court by civil rights attorney David Lane.
Reached by phone Thursday, Lane described the jail in recent years as a “hellhole.”
“This is the third incident just from my law firm alone of deliberate indifference to the needs of inmates and the safety and welfare of inmates,” he said. “Summit County has had a position of endangering the lives of inmates and then doing everything they can to cover up their constitutional violations.”
The sheriff’s office said it anticipates a vigorous defense against the allegations.
Bickford, who suffered from alcoholism, was arrested on April 6, 2016, when a sheriff’s deputy found her semi-conscious and intoxicated in an apartment with her infant son, according to court documents. The deputy arrested Bickford on suspicion of child abuse and neglect, but the charges were dropped after her death.
Bickford made multiple suicidal statements while being booked into jail that evening but was not placed on a protective mental health hold, according to the suit. Her blood alcohol content had been 0.351 at the hospital after her initial arrest.
“Despite numerous indications that Ms. Bickford was suicidal, she was put into general population and deprived of all of her anti-depressant medications,” the suit alleges. “The Defendants did absolutely nothing to insure Ms. Bickford’s safety.”
On April 10, Bickford began exhibiting symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including vomiting, sweating and shaking, according to the suit. She was taken to the booking desk and told deputies she didn’t want to go back to her cell pod, but she “denied that she wanted to hurt herself.”
Bickford was taken back to her cell early in the morning on April 11. Several hours later, she hung herself with a bed sheet. She was taken to a hospital in Lakewood in critical condition but died later that evening.
The suit argues sheriff’s office staff violated Bickford’s constitutional rights and seeks both compensatory and punitive damages. It names former Sheriff John Minor and several other deputies.
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said he could not comment on the pending litigation but noted that the incident occurred under the administration of a previous sheriff and undersheriff.
“Ms. Bickford was evaluated by a professional mental health counselor from Mind Springs Health and cleared for placement in the general inmate population,” FitzSimons said in a statement. “Ms. Bickford was also seen by the jail nurse over the weekend before her death.”
FitzSimons said he anticipates a “vigorous defense of the allegations” by the county’s insurance carriers, who are ultimately responsible for these types of cases.
“Under my administration, staff training has been a continual focus,” he wrote. “And we have intensified our focus on mental health issues and substance abuse challenges in the community, because those issues are inextricably linked to what goes on in our detention facility, just like others across the country.”
The suit on behalf of Bickford cites both of those cases as evidence of a “custom, practice and policy of ignoring the serious medical needs/health and safety needs of inmates” at the sheriff’s office.
The suit also cites testimony from a deputy in one of those cases who said she quit her job because of the number of health incidents at the jail, including the Bickford case. Another deputy testified that she was almost fired for watching Netflix on duty and failing to notice an inmate’s attempted suicide. She was permitted to resign and collect severance, the suit claims.
Last November, Summit County agreed to pay the family of Zackary Moffitt $3.5 million to settle a civil rights suit stemming from his in-custody death from alcohol withdrawal in 2013.
That lawsuit alleged that jail staff ignored Moffitt’s severe withdrawal symptoms and failed to provide him with medical care. It also claimed staff violated jail policy by booking Moffitt without a medical clearance despite his extremely high blood alcohol content. (The deputy responsible resigned.)
In 2014, James Durkee sued the sheriff’s office, alleging jail staff failed to protect him from another inmate who had threatened him. Durkee was severely beaten after that inmate was unshackled near him.
Durkee’s case went to trial but ended in a hung jury last July. The county settled out of court, agreeing to pay him $200,000.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation investigated Moffitt and Bickford’s deaths at the request of the district attorney’s office, which in both cases declined to press charges against sheriff’s office staff.
But taken together, Lane said, the incidents paint a picture of institutional misconduct that will likely lead to a substantial judgment in his client’s favor.
“What we’re going to try to do is bootstrap the Moffitt case in with the Bickford case and the Durkee case to show a jury that Summit County has a custom, practice and policy of being deliberately indifferent to the needs of inmates,” Lane said. “And hopefully a jury will just smack the crap out of Summit County.”
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