JASPER, Ala. (WBMA) — The death of Walker County Jail inmate, Tony Mitchell, has renewed questions about past deaths at the county jail. Claims of inadequate health care and mental health treatment span years before images of Mitchell from inside the jail reached national media attention.
ABC 33/40's I-Team has worked the past month to get information on some 13 deaths inside the jail dating back to 2015. But county officials, including the District Attorney, County Attorney, Sheriff's office, and coroner have not responded to our public records requests.
In emails and phone calls, ABC 33/40 News has requested a list of inmates and their cause of death. We also requested the amount of money Walker County has paid out in civil lawsuits from the county attorney.
Michael Harris has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in connection with his 34 year old daughter's death in 2018. Autumn Harris was booked into jail on a failure to appear charge related to a misdemeanor charge. It was a case that started with an argument over $40 with a friend.
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"She was a great kid, a daddy's girl. We had an awesome relationship," recalled Michael Harris.
Booking records from November of 2018 show jail staff was aware Autumn had pneumonia and medications were given to the nurse. But for weeks Autumn was untreated, uncared for according to family Attorney Justin Jones.
"There's no affirmative evidence she was given her medication," said Jones.
He tells ABC 33/40 News if at any point before Autumn's death had someone just taken her to the hospital for treatment she would be alive today. Records note days before her death, Autumn was having a hard time breathing.
"The fluid in her lungs was four times that of a normal person. We're talking about someone who desperately needed help for days," remarked Jones. Three weeks after Autumn arrived at the jail, she was dead.
Her court appearance on the FTA was set for the day after she died. "It was devastating," recalled her father.
"It's very difficult to see pictures of them trying to revive her," said Jones. The family's wrongful death lawsuit goes to trial in May against the county's former jail medical provider Preemptive Forensic Health Solutions and owner Roger Childers who is not a medical doctor. We could not reach Childers or his attorney for comment by email or phone.
Walker County now has a new health care provider.
It's important to note many inmates in county jails have not been convicted of a crime and are charged with misdemeanors.
In 2019, 39 year old Mindy Dawn Tidwell died after a reported medical emergency in the jail booking area. Court documents reveal two other inmates were charged with beating Tidwell, striking her in the head and face.
The two were charged with misdemeanor assault. One plead guilty and got a 12 month suspended sentence. The other case is pending. We wanted to find out why they did not face more serious charges in Tidwell's death.
ABC 33/40 News contacted District Attorney Bill Adair's office. He did not return our calls.
A civil lawsuit from Mitchell Smother's family claims he died of sepsis after staff refused to get him medical treatment for an infection from a non-healing wound. Walker County is also listed in the suit alleging it failed to provide 'adequate medical care.'
Courts have long held that inmates are entitled to health care under the constitution.
"There's no remorse there from them," remarked Michael Harris. He explains he hopes lawmakers will take a hard look at the medical and mental healthcare for inmates and the preventable deaths.
Through news reports ABC 33/40 News found a total of 13 jail deaths since 2015. That includes four suicides by hanging and eight medical issues.
"There's too many deaths that have happened in this county; so there is a problem," said Harris.
The Department of Justice keeps statistics by state, but does not offer breakdowns by individual counties. Reuters compiled a news investigation through public records requests called Dying Inside which offers greater insight into the issue on the national level.
ABC 33/40 News checked with several larger sheriff's offices in Central Alabama for comparison to Walker County. All had much lower numbers.
Jail deaths since 2015: