- This guy was sent to jail after they revoked his probation on marijuana and ecstacy charges. Unfortunately he had mental health issues and the jail wasMessage 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2004View Source
MessageThis guy was sent to jail after they revoked his probation on marijuana and ecstacy charges. Unfortunately he had mental health issues and the jail was substandard.
Cannabis friendly music, free speech and comedy-----Original Message-----
From: Sandrine Ageorges [mailto:ageorges.sandrine@...]
Sent: Wednesday, March 31, 2004 7:02 AM
Subject: [PNN] TX - Jail cell became death chamber
Jail cell became death chamber
Mom says deputies failed her son; official says policies were followed
By Laura Heinauer
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Under the fluorescent lights of a room in the Williamson County courthouse, Luke Ashley's freshly shaven head is covered in nicks and splotches. His earrings are gone, but the holes left behind are big enough for the 24-year-old to stick his fingers through.
Two hours earlier, he was in tears. Now, he stares into space.
"He was in another world," Tricia Ashley, Luke's mother, said as she recounted that December court appearance. "I thought, 'Oh God, help him. I don't know how he is ever going to make it in there.' "
Luke Ashley died 10 days later while on suicide watch at the Williamson County Jail.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he had violated his probation and was awaiting transfer to a state prison rehabilitation program for mentally ill inmates.
Tricia Ashley said jail officials knew about Luke's mental illness -- which is characterized by alternating periods of extreme moods -- and it was their responsibility to protect him. The family plans to file a lawsuit against the county in the next few weeks.
The prospect of a lawsuit resurrects some old questions about a jail system that has failed eight of 15 state inspections since 1995 and illustrates the risk county taxpayers' face when their jail is not in compliance with state standards. The Ashleys say filing suit is the only way to prevent more families from having to go through what they did.
"My biggest question is why," Tricia Ashley said. "Why, if he was on suicide watch, did they leave him in a cell alone with a towel and an upper bunk? He had 15 minutes. Why did they give him the time and the tools to take his own life?"
Jail records show that Luke Ashley was taken off his schizophrenia medication, Abilify, during his first two days in jail and moved several times between suicide watch and the general population. Because of the pending lawsuit, jail officials have refused to answer specific questions about his stay.
Recorded phone calls from Dec. 4, the day he died, reveal a scared and angry young man. He says he got in a fight and had a seizure. At one point he tells his mother he is "floating" and begs her to get him transferred to the Austin State Hospital, a mental health facility.
". . . I'm locked in a cage by myself . . . and I'm about to be locked in a smaller, tiny dinky cage by myself," he screams. His voice grows more desperate: "Now I have two other people down the hall that want to kill me. . . . I'm just telling you right now, Mom, I'm not going to get through it."
At 10:15 that night, Luke Ashley was sitting in his cell, according to jail records. Less than 15 minutes later, he was found hanging from a bunk bed with a white, prison-issue towel wrapped around his neck.
Sheriff's department Assistant Chief Deputy Jim Harrell, who now leads the jail but was not in charge that night, stands by the actions of the people who were. He said jail records indicate that guard-to-inmate ratios and suicide watch policies were followed.
When an inmate decides to commit suicide, he said, there is little that officials can do to stop it.
"Our staff didn't do anything wrong," Harrell said, adding that he knew of no policy changes or disciplinary action taken after the incident.
The jail had failed its most recent state inspection that fall, receiving a citation for having inmates sleeping on the floor. Other state inspections during the previous two years had shown that officials were not following department procedures for supervising potentially suicidal inmates or keeping adequate health records.
When the state conducted a re-inspection in January, shortly after Harrell came on board, the jail passed.
"If we do not follow the law, the county is exposed to the threat of litigation," Harrell said, adding that it's difficult to ask for more jailers over more patrol officers on the streets. "We have to rely on the commissioners and the taxpayers, which puts us in a most uncomfortable position. . . . It's always a fine balancing act."
With his dyed hair, earrings and baggy jeans, Luke Ashley never fit in well after he moved from Florida to Round Rock at the start of 10th grade in 1994. The moodiness that started during his early teenage years followed him to his new home. Over the years, he grew more distant.
There were times when Luke Ashley would stay awake for days, and times when he would sleep for days, his mother said. He couldn't keep a job and was smoking marijuana regularly.
"Sometimes I feel like I'd be better off dead," he told his mother in 2000.
Two weeks later, Luke Ashley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The diagnosis did not stop the drug use. In November 2000, he was pulled over for speeding, and the officer found a small amount of marijuana and two pills of Ecstasy. A Williamson County judge sentenced him to four years probation.
His probation was revoked in September when he tested positive for drugs. He was ordered to stay at the Williamson County Jail until a bed became available at a state-run program for inmates with drug and mental health problems.
"Jail scared the crud out of him," Tricia Ashley said.
Luke Ashley's incarceration came after a particularly difficult year at a jail that's had a history of problems. Since 1990, the jail system has faced recurring problems with crowding, suicide checks and record keeping. There have been 13 suicide attempts at the jail since 2002.
In December 1999, Julie Town, 35, was found hanging from a brass handle in her cell. Records indicate that the jail was understaffed, and Town was left unchecked for five hours that night. Both are violations of state standards. The jail failed its next state inspection on Jan. 5, 2000.
After that, the jail went more than two years without failing an inspection. Then, in April 2002, Harrell left the department over differences with then-Sheriff John Maspero. Former Assistant Chief Deputy Jack Hall took over in 2002, and the jail failed its next three state inspections. It was cited for not maintaining inmate health and exercise records, failing to administer timely tuberculosis tests and not following department procedures for supervising potentially suicidal inmates.
The state requires jails to develop their own suicide prevention plans and offers only broad guidelines. In Williamson County, all inmates are regularly given towels, though department policy does not explicitly say whether the staff must take away the towels or other items when an inmate goes on suicide watch. Harrell also declined to say whether that's standard procedure.
Inmates who are found to be at a high risk or who have verbalized plans to kill themselves can be placed in a cell where they are observed every five minutes. The night he died, Luke Ashley was determined to be a "moderate" risk for suicide, so he was observed every 15 minutes.
Amid the ongoing problems, Maspero last summer changed his original staffing request for the new jail from 272 to about 150, below the number recommended by the state Commission on Jail Standards.
Hall expressed concerns. "We've cut it to the bare bones," he told the commissioners. "I'm greatly concerned about the liability to the county if we inadequately staff it." Hall did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
In September, the jail failed another re-inspection, because inmates were sleeping on the floor.
Luke Ashley arrived about a month later, just before Maspero's temporary removal from office amid allegations of public drunkenness. Maspero later resigned. Jail officials, meanwhile, were going through the process of moving prisoners to cells at a new facility.
Lawyer Joe Cruz, who represents the Ashley family, said Ashley never should have been given a towel and left alone in a cell with a bunk. He also disputes jail records that say a guard was checking on Luke Ashley every 15 minutes.
"I don't doubt for a second that they don't think they did anything wrong, and that's exactly where the problem lies," Cruz said. "The fact is, they knew he was suicidal and showed deliberate indifference."
A knock on the door
Tricia Ashley remembers the phone ringing sometime around 3:30 a.m. on Friday morning, Dec. 5, but she was too tired to pick up before it stopped. The doorbell rang at about 4:15 a.m., and when she opened it, a police officer filled its frame.
" 'It's about your son,' " she says the officer told her. " 'He attempted to hang himself, and he was fairly successful.' "
At 5 a.m., Tricia and Luke's father, David Ashley, were at the Georgetown Hospital.
Tubes protruding from Luke's nose and mouth were filled with blood. His body would shake violently every few minutes, she said. When his heart rate suddenly dropped around 8 a.m., Tricia ran out of hope. "Let him go," she said.
As she said her final goodbyes, the prison guards watched.
"I was stroking his head, telling him that I loved him, and they were all around me," she said. "They were watching over him closer when he was dying than when he was alive, and they could have prevented it."
Luke's sister, Dena Mansouri, is angry her brother was ever sent to jail in the first place. "He didn't fit in the general population of the world, much less the general population of a jail," she said.
Mental health cuts
News of Luke Ashley's suicide spread fast at a Williamson County Commissioners Court meeting the next Tuesday.
It was yet another blow to the sheriff's department, and the potential for a lawsuit was clear.
"When you have a jail out of compliance, and an unfortunate incident like that happens, it just compounds the problem for the county," Commissioner David Hays said.
Hays said the jail's continued problems were a major concern. In the following weeks, the commissioners appointed Jim Wilson as sheriff, knowing he wanted to put Harrell back in charge of the jail.
Harrell said cuts to state programs for mentally ill people have forced the jail to become the largest mental health facility in the county, and he argued strongly that jail is not the place for these people. "We're not trained doctors; we don't have the resources they need."
This year, the court will have to make up for staffing cuts at the jail and probably open a new floor to accommodate growth, Hays said. The total budget for the jail is $13.4 million. It currently has about 650 inmates and as many as 24 correctional officers on duty at any one time.
"It's probably the most important budget issue," he said.
An even bigger strain could come as a result of the threats of litigation, if the county has to pay large settlements, Hays said.
The drama in the sheriff's department since Maspero's removal has only solidified Tricia Ashley's conviction that something could have been done to save Luke Ashley.
Ensuring other families won't have to go though the same thing also helps alleviate the pain of not being able to save her son.
"I don't want to die," Luke said in his conversation with his mother.
"I don't want you to . . ." she said.
"Then help me," he said. "(Suicide watch) is not what I need. I can't even see straight right now. It's like a fish eye lens. My distortions are so bad I don't even know what's going on."
Minutes later, Tricia's words of encouragement are cut off.
And Luke Ashley goes back to the cell where he spends the rest of his life.
lheinauer@... ; 246-1150