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Sedgwick County sheriff gets wrongful death claim over inmate suicide

Sedgwick County Jail
Sedgwick County Jail

Relatives of a man who hanged himself with his bedsheet at the Sedgwick County Jail have filed a wrongful death claim against Sheriff Robert Hinshaw for $250,000 in damages.

The sheriff and Sedgwick County government could be facing other similar claims. Another attorney told The Eagle that he expects to file claims over other inmate suicides or attempted suicides at the jail.

A notice of claim in the May 24 death of Jonathan Haehn, an initial step in filing a lawsuit, alleges that jail staff never put him on a suicide watch or removed his bedding and clothing although his girlfriend and sister had called the jail “warning that Mr. Haehn was at risk of killing himself.”

Haehn, 35, suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism, had hallucinations and “thought people were in his cell trying to get at him,” the claim says. “Other inmates heard Mr. Haehn screaming for help, and begging to see a nurse.” On May 23, Haehn asked to see a clinic nurse but was not seen by a nurse that day or the next day, when he tied his sheet to a ceiling light fixture and hanged himself, the claim says.

Haehn’s younger sister, Danelle Martinez, said in an interview that she called the jail the evening before her brother’s death.

“I told them he needs to be strictly monitored; he is not right now,” Martinez said. She said she called the jail after her brother’s girlfriend spoke with him and he sounded scared and delusional.

Martinez said her brother had stabbed himself in the stomach with a large knife about two years ago.

On Thursday, Hinshaw said the county has denied the claim partly because a screening performed when Haehn was admitted to the jail didn’t show him being at risk of suicide. Haehn denied he was feeling suicidal, Hinshaw said.

Although Haehn was not on a suicide watch, he was put on a “30-minute special watch” so that he could be monitored every 30 minutes, Hinshaw said. Haehn had full use of a day room and was not confined to his cell, he said.

The claim over Haehn’s death is the latest among several claims or lawsuits against the sheriff alleging abuse of jail inmates. Attorneys for inmates who say they were sexually assaulted by a jail deputy earlier this year are seeking $20 million from the county in claims filed last month. Mark Schoenhofer, the attorney who is representing Haehn’s estate, is one of the attorneys involved in the claims over the alleged sex crimes at the jail.

An ongoing lawsuit in federal court alleges abuse of mentally ill inmates. Larry Wall, the attorney bringing that lawsuit, said Thursday that he expects to file at least two notices of claim over suicides or suicide attempts at the jail. He said he couldn’t comment further.

Hinshaw, who lost his bid for re-election in a Republican primary race dominated by allegations of abuse at the jail, has defended the jail operations, saying there is not a culture of abuse.

The Eagle recently obtained the notice of claim in Haehn’s death through the Kansas Open Records Act.

Haehn’s suicide marked the second death by hanging of someone in custody at the jail this year. A third death was due to natural causes, the Sheriff’s Office said.

In 2011, there were no deaths out of 31,134 people booked into the jail. In 2010, there were two deaths out of 32,235 people booked into the jail.

This year, the Sheriff’s Office has recorded 25 suicide attempts, out of 18,768 people booked into the jail as of Thursday. In 2011, there were 30 suicide attempts; in 2010, 20 attempts; in 2009, 28 attempts, Hinshaw said.

The Haehn claim, dated July 23 and addressed to County Commission Chairman Tim Norton and County Clerk Kelly Arnold, said, “Sheriff Hinshaw was negligent for failing to properly train, educate and supervise his detention deputies. … Detention deputies failed to recognize and appropriately respond to the warning signs of suicide.”

It faults the jail staff, alleging they did not notify supervisors or the jail clinic that Haehn was delusional. He reportedly was not making sense, was acting agitated and was having to be told which cell to return to.

It says deputies “deprived Mr. Haehn of basic mental health care and treatment.”

According to the claim, Haehn had been on probation for a DUI conviction, and a warrant alleging he had violated his probation had been issued. On May 17, a week before he killed himself, he turned himself in.

Hinshaw said all inmates are evaluated before they are placed in the jail. He said the decision of whether to place someone on a suicide watch includes statements from the arresting officer, the inmate, other inmates, calls from family members or friends, observations by jail staff and input from medical staff.

Typically, he said, if an inmate says he is thinking about killing himself, he is put on a suicide watch immediately until evaluated by mental health staff.

A suicide watch includes removing bed sheets and anything else that could possibly be used by someone to harm themselves.

Depending on the severity of the situation, someone on a suicide watch can be placed in one 14 cells that have cameras for monitoring, Hinshaw said.

According to an Eagle story about Haehn’s death, detention staff found him hanging in a single-person cell about 10:25 a.m. and gave aid until medical staff arrived. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead at 11:16 a.m.

The KBI and sheriff’s detectives investigated his death. The coroner’s office ruled that Haehn’s death was a suicide by hanging. An autopsy report said that according to other reports, Haehn had a “past medical history significant for psychosis, chronic alcohol abuse and hypertension” and that he was “found hanging by a torn segment of bed sheet wrapped around his neck and fastened to a light in his cell.”

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