Larry Price died of starvation during a year in Ark Prison, according to a lawsuit
Allegedly relatives of Price in a wrongful death suit An Arkansas federal court argued Friday that Price, who was not sedated and suffered from severe mental illness, was allowed to starve to death over a year in pretrial detention due to the negligence of prison staff and a private health contractor. The prison, Turn Key Health Clinics and several employees – named or unnamed – are named as defendants.
A Sebastian County Jail official said in a statement Friday that it has medical personnel available to treat inmates in need of care and that it is conducting an internal review of Price’s condition. Representatives for Turn Key Health Clinics did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the complaint.
For Price’s family, his death is particularly traumatic given how easily it could have been avoided — starting with the decision to put a man with schizophrenia into a system it was never designed to treat and then hold him without trial for a year upon year. $100 bail he can’t afford. The pain was exacerbated, they say, by such details as dozens of prison records indicating that either no one was watching or no one cared because he was wasting away, and records that continued to list him as “good”—even after his death.
Family attorney Eric Hept, whose Seattle-based firm Budge & Hept specializes in unlawful killings and police brutality, called Price’s death one of the worst he had seen in his nearly 20 years of handling such cases.
Price is among the 1,200 people known to have died in local prisons, According to 2019 figures from Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2022 Senate Subcommittee on Investigations The report indicated that the numbers are not counted significantlyOversight agencies, reform groups and lawmakers have noted long-standing problems with collecting accurate data.
Although the details of Price’s case are more distinct—his autopsy listed the cause of his death as “severe dehydration and malnutrition”—prisons and the broader criminal legal system have struggled to deal with the health needs of detainees, particularly those with mental illnesses.
“There’s an overarching point that Larry Price doesn’t belong in prison,” Hibbett said, noting that Price was “primarily jailed for being in a mental health crisis.”
In August of 2020, Price entered a police station in Fort Smith, Ark., and began behaving erratically, at one point imitating shooting his fingers at the gun and verbally threatening officers, according to the complaint.
His family said he was known to members of the community and moved between shelters, occasionally visiting his aunt who lived in the area to eat or take a bath. Price’s brother, who lives in California, has been calling and checking in to keep an eye on his whereabouts. He was known to the local police, too, they said, because officers were often the ones to find Price, who has schizophrenia, in the midst of a mental health crisis.
On that day, officers decided it would be in his best interest to take him to jail, according to the lawsuit. Price was booked on a first-degree felony charge of making terrorist threats.
His bail was set at $1,000, which meant he only needed to pay $100 for his release, but he didn’t have the money. He would spend the next year in jail, largely locked in a cell, until his death in August 2021.
Price’s family said they began to worry when they could not locate him and when he did not show up to his aunt’s house in Fort Smith; They were not aware of his imprisonment. Iris Price said that when they called the prison to ask if he was there, staff would not confirm his status or allow them to leave information for Price, saying he would have to reach out to them to get in touch.
Sebastian County Jail did not respond to questions about Price’s claim or clarify protocol for next of kin seeking to share information with detainees.
Prison records and health records obtained by The Washington Post, which include interviews with prison staff after Price’s death, show that Price showed frequent signs of acute mental health distress: He would become agitated, eat his own feces, eat the Styrofoam boxes his food came in and refuse to take his medication. .
Nearly five months after his arrest, Price requested a medical visit because he “was ill and had lost a lot of weight,” according to the complaint. Prison staff and health workers noted that Price was visibly thin, having dropped more than 30 pounds since taking it. Even as he continued to lose weight and behave erratically, the complaint said, Price had not been transferred to a facility that could take care of his mental health and specific physical needs.
Because of his mental health issues, Price spent much of his year on remand in separate residences, which required health checks every 15 minutes. Hebet said prison staff either falsified the reports and did not scrutinize him or ignored his deteriorating condition.
According to the complaint, staff made more than 4,000 well-being check entries between August 1 and August 29, 2021, when he died with the same entry, “Guest and Cell OK.” Ten more identical entries were recorded after Price’s death was announced.
There are consistent standards of care for detainees and prisoners in the corrections system, said Timothy Edgemon, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology who studies corrections at Auburn University. But in many cases, the best course begins with removing people with severe mental illnesses from a system that was not designed to serve them in the first place.
Unlike prisons that house people for long periods while they serve their sentences, prisons are often filled with people like Price who have not been convicted of anything but are too poor to afford bail while they wait out their day in court. And unlike state and federal prisons, commitments to providing long-term health care in local prisons are vague and under-resourced.
“The main problem we always have in the county jail is that from the very beginning, he can’t handle this kind of case [like Price]”,” Edgemon said. “In an ideal system, we would have another space designed to engage with someone who desperately needs help.”
Edjimon added that rural prisons are not particularly equipped to handle people with mental illnesses. In the past decade, some jurisdictions have created so-called mental health courts where the court can select forms of treatment not normally available through the local prison system.
Price’s lawyer, Haibett, said the case “represents everything that is wrong with the cash bail system because it punishes the poor.”
Hebet also criticized local prisons that depend on private health companies to care for inmates. He pointed to previous cases where companies cut operating costs by understaffing or not keeping key staff on site.
“A lot of it has to do with money, and when the people you put in charge basically see the inmates as dollar signs, it’s a system that’s doomed to fail,” Haibet said.
The complaint says the employees’ actions violated Price’s constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and seeks a jury trial.
The Price family hopes the lawsuit will provide answers. His relatives have unique insight into health and corrections protocols, including for detainees with mental health or disability issues: Iris Price is a nurse, while Rodney Price is a retired California corrections officer.
“It was negligence. This should not have happened,” Iris Price said. Since Larry’s death in August 2021, the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, has told the family that they did nothing wrong, she added. “But we hear that a lot, no. Especially when it comes to someone struggling with their mental health.”