Lawyer seeks answers in brother’s suicide at Sedgwick County Jail

As a medical malpractice defense attorney, Julia Houser knows how to get answers.

But nearly six months after Sedgwick County Jail staff found her brother, Joseph Gibfried, 40, hanging from an improvised noose in a restroom area, she is still trying to find out how it happened.

“I just want some answers.” Houser said she wonders why jail staff didn’t find her brother sooner.

He was found hanging in a place used by others — and he was there long enough to make and fasten a noose strong enough to hold his 140-pound body. A jail staffer told her inmates do pull-ups on the bar where her brother’s noose was tied.

“I just know it takes a long time to have an anoxic brain injury,” where the brain gets no oxygen for a significant amount of time, she said.

A jail can’t be suicide-proof, Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said. He recalled an attempted suicide where an inmate took part of a towel and managed to wedge it into a recessed framework to attempt a suicide.

“You do everything to minimize risk … but total elimination of the ability for someone to hurt themselves is virtually going to be impossible unless you restrain them 24 hours a day, and (then) you’re getting into other constitutional issues,” he said.

Houser is speaking out as the county is dealing with a $250,000 wrongful death claim over the May 24 suicide of Jonathan Haehn, 35. The claim alleges that staff never put Haehn on a suicide watch or removed his bedding after his girlfriend and sister warned that he was at risk of killing himself. He hanged himself with his bedsheet.

The jail has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months over an ongoing federal court lawsuit alleging abuse of mentally ill inmates and over criminal charges against a deputy accused of sexually assaulting inmates.

The restroom area where Gibfried hanged himself is behind where a deputy sits, and there is a partition and doors for privacy, said sheriff’s Maj. Glenn Kurtz, who oversees jail operations. There must be trade-offs between security and privacy, Kurtz said. “We’re trying to treat the inmates with as much dignity” as possible, he said.

Pod 10, where Gibfried had been held, could house up to 52 inmates, Kurtz said. The spot where he hanged himself is “one of the few places that you can’t see just sitting at the desk” where the deputy sits, he said. Kurtz said that based on a video he has seen of the resuscitation effort to help Gibfried, it’s not clear whether a door or partition would have blocked the deputy’s view.

New deputies receive eight hours of training on suicide prevention and mental health, and experienced deputies four hours of annual refresher training, Hinshaw said.

Because many jail suicides occur in inmate housing areas and late at night or on weekends, it’s up to deputies, not mental and medical health staff, to prevent suicides, according to a national study commissioned by the federal government.

Suicides are a leading cause of jails deaths. The study, published in 2010, found that most suicides are by white men who hang themselves.

Houser, the Utah attorney whose brother’s death was ruled a suicide by hanging, said there were troubling signs before his death.

During an earlier jail stay in November, another brother saw bruising and swelling on Joseph Gibfried’s face. Asked who beat him, “Joe just clammed up. He wouldn’t talk about it anymore,” Houser said.

The other brother talked to a deputy about Gibfried’s injury, and the deputy said they would investigate it, Houser said. When the other brother returned the next week, Gibfried told him, “You guys said something to somebody, didn’t you, because the beatings got worse.”

After Gibfried was released last winter, Houser said he told her: “I’m going to do everything I can to stay out of there.”

“My brother was a very private person, didn’t show much emotion, but it was clear he was afraid. He had a lot of anxiety about that experience” in the jail, she said.

The November stay was his first time in jail. He had been stealing to support his substance abuse, she said. He lived in Derby and did handyman jobs.

He ended up back in jail in March after his bond was revoked for not attending a pre-trial services meeting. His last stay at the jail lasted only several hours.

According to an EMS report Houser obtained, jail staff found Gibfried “in the restroom area hanging with a self-made noose” around 5 p.m. March 6. EMS workers found him on the floor, where jail medical staff and firefighters were doing CPR.

He was on life support in a hospital for hours that night and into the next day before someone from the jail notified her parents, who live in the Wichita area, Houser said.

Jail staff were waiting on an overnight assessment of Gibfried’s medical condition, said Kurtz, the sheriff’s major. And when they tried to reach the family, they had to go through a bail bondsman to get contact information, he said.

Gibfried remained on life support for about two days before being pronounced dead.

Although he was brain-dead, Houser said, the family couldn’t get permission to enter his hospital room because he was still in custody. He remained chained to his bed up until the day he was taken off life support.

“We could not grieve privately with my brother because we had a deputy in there … until we made the decision to take off life support.” It took a call from a doctor to the Sheriff’s Office to get the deputy out of the room, she said.

Kurtz said that as long as someone is in the jail’s custody, “we have a legal responsibility for the safety of the community,” which typically results in a hospitalized inmate being kept in handcuffs and a leg shackle and having a deputy in the hospital room. Unless the inmate is critically ill or near death, family aren’t allowed in the hospital room for security reasons.

If Gibfried’s family was denied access, it was for a “very short term,” Kurtz said.

At one point at the hospital, Houser said, Kurtz walked up to her and said, “I’ve got good news: We’ve dropped the charges against Joe.” Her father, a retired corporate officer for a Cessna Aircraft subsidiary, heard it too. Even if Kurtz might have meant it well, the family thought it showed no sensitivity to their grief.

Kurtz says Houser misunderstood his words. What he meant is that permission had been received from a judge to release Gibfried from custody, meaning the guard could be removed from the room and the ankle cuff removed. “We tried to gain the release as quickly as possible as soon as the determination was made this inmate is not going to recover.”

As of Friday, Houser had yet to receive medical records on her brother from the Sheriff’s Office.

In a May 23 letter, Kurtz said he couldn’t provide the records because the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was still conducting a required investigation to determine whether her brother’s death was a crime. She renewed her request with Kurtz in an Aug. 3 letter, saying a KBI investigator told her the criminal investigation was finished and the case closed and that the records she was seeking had been returned to the jail.

Kurtz told The Eagle on Friday that he recently got clearance from county legal staff to provide Houser records of Gibfried’s first and last stay at the jail.