Mentally ill in jail ‘very challenging’


Bartholomew County Jail officials say they have policies and procedures in place to handle what they described as an increase in inmates struggling with mental illness.

The jail in Columbus conducts mental health assessments on every inmate when they are booked in and has an onsite mental health provider, though an official acknowledged “it is very challenging” to handle some mentally ill inmates, especially those who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

“It all comes back to your staff on following policies and procedures,” jail commander Maj. John Martoccia said. “…We rely on our mental health and our medical (staff) for a lot of this.”

The issue of how jails in the Columbus area deal with mentally ill inmates has been thrust back into the spotlight after Jackson County’s prosecutor declined last month to bring criminal charges against county jail employees related to the death of an inmate with a history of mental illness.

The inmate, Joshua McLemore, 29, died in August from multiple organ failure, refusal to eat or drink with altered mental status and unrelated schizophrenia after spending 20 days in the Jackson County Jail, exhibiting “erratic and self-harming behavior” without receiving medical attention.

In a 12-page report that concluded a nine-month investigation, Jackson County Prosecutor Jeff Chalfant determined that no jail employees were criminally liable for McLemore’s death even though the inmate “most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention” by jail staff.

McLemore had a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, drug abuse and other serious health conditions, according to the report. He also suffered from what family members told authorities were drug-induced manic episodes and had been in a mental institution four times in Mississippi.

The probe into McLemore’s death was the third investigation into the death of a Columbus area jail inmate since last summer. It’s unclear whether the other inmates who died were diagnosed with mental illness.

In July 2021, Jackson County Jail inmate Ta’Neasha Chappell, a 23-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, woman died in custody of the jail at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour. Chalfant also declined to file criminal charges related to Chappell’s death. Her family is suing Jackson County Sheriff Rick Meyer and eight jail employees, seeking $30 million.

Inmates at the Jackson County Jail now have to have mental assessments and meet with mental health providers, Jail Commander Chris Everhart recently told the county council when talking about staffing shortages.

Last month, Indiana State Police concluded an investigation into the death of Sandra Ray, a 35-year-old inmate at the Jennings County Jail who was found unresponsive in her cell in May.

Investigators have turned over a report of their findings to the Jennings County Prosecutor’s Office, but no further details have been released. Authorities to date have declined to release Ray’s cause of death or an arrest report. Ray was taken into custody in May on suspicion of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Local policies and procedures

Martoccia, for his part, said officials have seen an increase in the number of inmates in Bartholomew County who are struggling with mental illness, mirroring trends seen across the country.

Activists say the prevalence of mental illness in U.S. jails and prisons is high. About 2 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States have a history of mental illness, including 44% of inmates in local jails, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Given these rates, America’s jails and prisons have become de-facto mental health providers, at great cost to the well-being of people with mental health conditions,” NAMI states on its website.

Locally, the number of “major” mental health issues involving local inmates soared to 53 in 2020, up from eight in 2019, according to figures previously provided by Bartholomew County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin.

In addition, the number of local inmates with mental health referrals more than doubled to 582 in 2020, and the number of inmates with mental health observations nearly quadrupled, the figures show.

In January, the Bartholomew County Jail expanded access to mental health services for inmates after receiving a grant last year from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, Martoccia said.

The grant has allowed the jail to have a mental health provider onsite for 40 hours per week, up from eight hours previously, Martoccia said.

The mental health services at the jail are provided by Advanced Correctional Healthcare, which describes itself on its website as the largest privately owned county jail health care provider in the United States with contracts in 18 states, including Indiana, providing health care services at more than 320 facilities.

“Everybody goes through an assessment when they get booked in,” Martoccia said.

The initial assessment is done by law enforcement officers, Martoccia said. But if they determine an inmate may be experiencing mental health issues, “we drop (our provider) a note or talk to him, and he goes and assesses them and has a follow-up with them every day or whatever they need,” Martoccia said.

In more severe cases when an inmate is refusing to eat or drink, jail officials will actively observe the inmate and log everything he or she consumes, Martoccia said. Officials also communicate with the jail’s medical provider for guidance.

Even if inmates start exhibiting abnormal behavior, jail officials cannot commit them to a mental institution, Martoccia said.

“We’re basically the jail,” Martoccia said. “We’re supposed to house them. Anything outside of that has to come from a judge.”

However, if an inmate is exhibiting concerning behavior, “we do notify the courts,” Martoccia added. “But ultimately, it’s not our decision on if they go somewhere or how long they stay here,” he said.

Arrests, abnormal behavior

Though much of the attention related to McLemore’s death has focused on Jackson County, the story of what transpired over his final months didn’t start there.

Court records show he was arrested on felony charges three times in the months leading up to his death this past August, and the first arrest took place in Bartholomew County, where he would spend 50 days in jail.

In probable cause affidavits, officers noted McLemore’s abnormal behavior during each of the arrests, including documenting an alleged attempt to climb up a wall at Columbus Regional Health, bite a “chunk of paint” off of a police car and make “strange comments about ‘gangsters’ chasing him and demons attempting to dismember him.”

On Jan. 10, 2021, McLemore was booked into the Bartholomew County Jail on two felony battery charges stemming from an alleged domestic dispute involving his father, and he almost immediately began exhibiting odd behavior, court records show.

Once McLemore was placed in his cell, “he dunked his head in the toilet that had urine in it, he then peed all over his cell, rolled around in it, peed into his hand and rubbed it all over his head …,” according to a probable cause affidavit.

Martoccia, for his part, said he recalled that McLemore had been incarcerated in Bartholomew County at one point last year but declined to provide any details on how jail officials handled his behavior, citing federal privacy laws.

Before being booked into the Bartholomew County Jail, McLemore had been taken to Columbus Regional Health for evaluation. At the hospital, “he was screaming almost the entire time” and “started climbing up the wall at CRH even though he was handcuffed to the bed,” the probable cause affidavit states.

When police attempted to restrain him, McLemore allegedly tried to bite the officer’s right arm.

McLemore had been arrested after police were dispatched to the scene of an alleged domestic dispute on Clifty Lane near Columbus East High School. When officers arrived, they heard yelling coming from inside the residence. Inside, they found a man on top of McLemore, pinning him to the floor.

The man, later identified as McLemore’s father, Melvin Cox, told police McLemore “has manic episodes when he drinks” and allegedly lunged at him with a knife, cutting his left wrist.

An officer attempted to speak with McLemore about the incident, but a probable cause affidavit says he was unable to answer questions and “was extremely intoxicated and could not stand up, nor sit in a chair as he fell out of it.”

McLemore posted bond and was released from the Bartholomew County Jail on March 1, 2021. A change of plea hearing was scheduled for May 10, 2021.

But the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the two felony charges just days before the hearing. Bartholomew County Superior Court Judge James Worton granted the motion on May 7, 2021.

Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said the motion was filed after McLemore’s father recanted his allegations in two letters written to investigators. However, Nash did not respond to a request for copies of the letters or whether Cox had asked for help for his son.

Second arrest

McLemore’s next arrest occurred less than three weeks after the charges in Bartholomew County were dropped, court records show.

At about 4:10 a.m. May 25, 2021, a Jackson County Sheriff’s Department officer was dispatched to U.S. 31 after receiving a report of a single-vehicle accident.

When the officer arrived on the scene, he located a black Toyota Camry in a ditch with heavy damage to the front bumper and a blown-out rear tire, according to a probable cause affidavit. The car was still running, but nobody was inside.

A witness told the officer she had seen a man with no shirt run from the scene toward a nearby house and appeared to hide behind a camper parked on the property.

The officer found the shirtless man, later identified as McLemore, lying on the grass between the camper and a shed.

When the officer identified himself, McLemore allegedly stood up, put his hands in the air and “began walking in circles and appeared as if he was going to run.”

The officer told McLemore to get back on the ground with his hands out to his sides. But McLemore instead “picked up a bundled garden hose and raised it above his head as if he was going to hit me with it,” the sheriff’s officer said in the affidavit.

McLemore then began walking toward the officer with the hose still above his head. The officer attempted to tase McLemore twice, but McLemore pulled the wires of the taser barbs and broke.

After the second attempt to tase him, McLemore dropped the hose, “took a step back, still in a fighting stance and said, ‘Come on, let’s do it,’” and allegedly started approaching the officer.

A fist fight ensued. McLemore allegedly threw punches at the officer. The officer was able to dodge the punches before punching McLemore in the right cheek and the chin and conducting a double-leg takedown.

At that point, the officer was able to pin McLemore to the ground and handcuff him.

“While waiting for Jackson County EMS to arrive on scene, Joshua began making strange comments about ‘gangsters’ chasing him and demons attempting to dismember him,” according to court records.

The officer, who said he sustained a severe sprain to his left thumb, rode with McLemore in the ambulance to Schneck Medical Center in Seymour.

“The entire time I was with Joshua, he continued to make strange comments and appeared to be under the influence of an illegal substance,” the officer said in the affidavit.

After receiving medical clearance, McLemore was taken to the Jackson County Jail in Brownstown and charged with battery with bodily injury to a public safety officer and resisting law enforcement, both felonies. He bonded out of jail one month later.

Final arrest, death

McLemore had another run-in with police less than a month after bonding out of the Jackson County Jail.

On July 20, 2021, Seymour police were dispatched to a residence just north of Tipton Street near Interstate 65 and found McLemore naked and incoherent, according to the Jackson County prosecutor’s report.

McLemore was taken to Schneck Medical Center to be evaluated for abnormal behavior consistent with methamphetamine use and/or an altered mental state, the report says.

At the hospital, McLemore allegedly “became increasingly agitated.” According to a probable cause affidavit, McLemore started lying on the floor of his room. When a nurse attempted to help him up, he allegedly grabbed a “hand full” of her hair and started yanking it.

McLemore was arrested for allegedly assaulting the nurse and was taken to the Jackson County Jail.

While being placed in the squad car, he allegedly “bit a chunk of paint” on the vehicle’s door, the affidavit states. While en route to jail, he allegedly cracked the vehicle’s windshield with his feet.

When he arrived at the jail, McLemore was not photographed, fingerprinted or asked any medical book-in questions, according to the prosecutor’s report. He was instead taken directly to a padded cell.

Investigators described McLemore’s behavior as “erratic” and his speech as “rambling and not focused.” They also noted he was “consistently covered in food, drinks, trash and urine.”

McLemore remained naked for the entirety of his 20-day stay in the jail, as he was unable to dress himself, and jail staff members were unable to dress him, investigators said. He rarely slept, ate or drank and lost nearly 45 pounds in just under three weeks. He showered twice and never asked to go to the restroom.

McLemore would spill and throw his food on the floor and walls and would tear up trays, paper bags and cups that food and drinks were served in, according to the Jackson County prosecutor’s report. He also would frequently urinate on the floor of his cell.

At least at one point, McLemore was placed in a device similar to a straitjacket “due to his erratic and self-harming behavior” amd “was left in it for several hours and monitored.”

About a week after McLemore was arrested, Everhart contacted McLemore’s public defender, expressing concern about his mental health, court records show.

The attorney attempted to meet with McLemore, but he “was not speaking rationally, nor would he answer defense counsel’s questions,” according to court records.

“Defense counsel is of the considered belief that the defendant may not be able to assist in his trial proceedings or even understand the nature of the proceedings,” according to court records.

On July 28, 2021, McLemore’s attorney filed a motion to determine his client’s mental competence and sanity. That same day, a Jackson County judge appointed two mental health professionals to conduct a psychiatric evaluation.

When trying to get McLemore to shower on Aug. 8, 2021, jail staff noticed e needed medical attention, the report states. They transported him to Schneck Medical Center.

After determining McLemore was in critical condition, he was transferred to Mercy West Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he died two days later.

“During his stay in the jail, jail staff did periodically observe Mr. McLemore and did note that he was not eating, that his cell was a mess, that he was dirty and that he was largely nonresponsive when they spoke to him,” Chalfant states in his report. “Jail staff did not connect this information together and infer that Mr. McLemore needed medical attention.”

However, Chalfant concluded “there was no evidence of a knowing, intentional or reckless act” by jail officials and any “act or omission that constituted a crime” but acknowledged “McLemore most likely died due to a prolonged lack of attention” by jail officials, the report states.

“Whether a person or entity had a duty of reasonable care toward a person and if that care was sufficient or a breach of that duty of reasonable care are matters of civil law and not criminal law,” Chalfant states in the report.

No posts to display