Thirty-seven-year-old Elliott Earl Williams had not slept by the time he was arrested for causing a commotion in a hotel lobby on October 21, 2011 in Owasso, Oklahoma, reports The Marshall Project.

The Black U.S. Army veteran was in distress, with arresting officers claiming he was eating dirt, removing his shirt and barking like a dog.

He continued to exhibit symptoms of distress once locked behind bars at the David L. Moss Detention Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, telling authorities he wanted to die, notes the report.

Williams died just days later on the floor of a jail cell. Family members, who had not been allowed to visit him, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Tulsa County six years ago, saying he was denied medical and mental health treatment, among a myriad of other charges. The case is scheduled to be heard on February 21.

Williams’ story, both in the days that led up to his death and the years that followed it, tracks a broader story of the treatment of the mentally ill in the nation’s jails. ––The Marshall Project

Indeed, the tale of Williams’ last days begs the question of what’s worse, dying at the hands of police officers before being locked up like Eric Garner, or suffering unspeakable indignities once behind bars like Williams. These are not questions anyone should have to answer, but it is a way of life for many African-Americans who become ensnared in the nation’s criminal justice system, especially those who suffer from any form of mental illness.

From The Marshall Project:

Williams’ story, both in the days that led up to his death and the years that followed it, tracks a broader story of the treatment of the mentally ill in the nation’s jails. First came the failure to train first responders. Next came inept screening by medical staff. Then came the mistreatment by jailers, untrained and unsupervised in the handling of vulnerable inmates. Finally came the cycle of madness and discipline: the more Williams’ guards lashed out at him, the sicker he got, which only made his jailers more frustrated and angry.

And what happened after Williams’ death is also familiar: foot-dragging, cover-up, and nobody held accountable except, perhaps, the taxpayers, when courts award damages.

According to court records and coverage by The Frontier, a Tulsa-based news organization that has doggedly covered the unfolding jail scandal, Williams’ relatives took him on October 21, 2011 to a hotel in Owasso, a northern suburb of Tulsa, because he “was having psychological issues” following a break-up with his wife. Williams wasn’t sleeping. He was said to be suffering from a bipolar disorder. He quickly made trouble in the lobby of that hotel and the local police were called to the scene. They saw him eat dirt and ramble on about God. He refused their commands to sit down, and acted strangely, so the cops pepper-sprayed Williams and took him from that hotel to the city jail.

Certainly, it is a fair critique of U.S. public health policy to say jails and prisons are often asked to serve as mental health hospitals, a task most are not equipped to handle. Many citizens of color and veterans with mental disabilities find their way to jail cells instead of treatment centers, and the “treatment” many find is nothing more than solitary confinement.

The United Nations concluded that solitary confinement for more than 15 days is torture, but some U.S. inmates have been in solitary for years. As Black people make up a disproportionate amount of the U.S. criminal justice system, they are more likely to be the victims of these injustices. Without adequate access to healthcare and treatment, mentally ill African-Americans are administered the “medicine” of time behind bars.

In Williams’ case, jail officials tried to use the “qualified immunity” defense, which requires any plaintiff seeking damages to reach a standard of proof that shows that the jailers were “deliberately indifferent” to Williams’ medical needs.

This defense protects police and prison guards in cases of neglect or abuse that are reasonably ambiguous. But U.S. District Judge John Dowdell will allow the Williams family’s case to move forward, saying that “a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Williams’ needs were obvious to any layperson.”

One of the common justifications for horrid stories like Williams’ is that guards receive “inadequate training,” particularly when it comes to handling inmates with mental illnesses. While it likely applies to procedure and protocol, this type of logic begs innumerable questions in cases of clear neglect.

The case is not the first time workers at the jail have been under the glare of the spotlight for allegations of malfeasance.

In six independent audits between 2007 and 2011, the same jail officials involved in Williams’ case were told about “systemic problems with the way inmates received (or, more precisely, did not receive) medical care inside the jail. Williams’ jailers were warned, over and over again, that there were systemic deficiencies in the delivery of medical care to inmates,” writes The Marshall Project.

Needless to say, family members are looking forward to receiving their day in court.

Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoJoshua.

SOURCE: The Marshall Project

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