“First they tortured her, then they killed her”
SPRINGFIELD, IL –(ENEWSPF)—March 12, 2018
By: Megan Groves Uptown People’s Law Center
Today, lawyers filed two lawsuits on behalf of the mother of an incarcerated woman who committed suicide—one against Sangamon County jail, and the other against the Illinois Department of Corrections, Governor Bruce Rauner, and the State of Illinois.
Tiffany Rusher began a five-year sentence at Logan Correctional Center in 2013. After she was put in solitary confinement, her mental health deteriorated so badly she began engaging in serious self-mutilation.
Eventually, Ms. Rusher attempted suicide, and was put on “crisis watch,” an unfortunately common occurrence for prisoners with mental health problems. Crisis watch entails stripping a patient of all clothing and belongings, and putting them in a completely bare cell with only a “suicide smock” (a single piece of thick woven nylon, too stiff to fold, with holes for head and arms). Though a Plexiglas wall, a guard watched Ms. Rusher, with the lights on, 24 hours a day.
The only appropriate use of crisis watch is to protect a patient from self-harm while professionals determine what treatment the patient needs. Under all accepted medical standards, it should be kept to a few hours, because it is not meant to treat patients, and the isolation it imposes quickly makes them worse. Indeed, holding even a mentally healthy person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days is considered torture by the United Nations, and is known among mental health experts to cause serious damage to the brain.
Ms. Rusher was kept in crisis watch for eight months. Prison officials could have sent Ms. Rusher to a state mental health hospital at any time, but they did not. Instead, they kept her in the crisis cell, and only when her sentence ended did prison officials transfer Ms. Rusher to a state mental health hospital—where she should have been all along.
After several months of successful treatment, Ms. Rusher was accused of fighting at the hospital. Instead of dealing with the issue as part of her treatment plan, hospital officials had her arrested and sent to Sangamon County jail. Officials at the jail knew she was severely mentally ill, had a high risk of suicide, and needed intensive mental health treatment. They also knew that keeping a mentally ill person in solitary confinement would worsen her condition, cause severe psychological trauma, and increase her risk of suicide. Yet the jail officials did just that.
Ms. Rusher was kept in solitary confinement at Sangamon County jail for three months, emotionally deteriorating, until she was found unresponsive in her cell with a ripped piece of towel around her neck. She died 12 days later when the hospital removed life support.
Representing Ms. Rusher’s estate in the cases are Alan Mills and Nicole Schult of Uptown People’s Law Center, Emmanuel Andre of the Northside Transformative Law Center, and Steve Weil and Ali Chardon of Weil & Chardon LLC.
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, said: “In prison, Tiffany was tortured—kept in solitary for months on end, and denied the mental health treatment she needed. In Sangamon County jail, they put her right back in solitary, again without providing the treatment she needed. First they tortured her, then they killed her.”
“It’s important to get justice for what happened to Tiffany. She was ill and she desperately needed help. But instead of care, she got cruelty,” said Ali Chardon, of Weil & Chardon LLC.
“Tiffany was a beautiful soul with hopes for her future,” said Ms. Rusher’s mother, Kelli Andrews, the plaintiff in the two lawsuits. “She was looking forward to coming home to be with her family. We miss her every day.”
Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) is a nonprofit legal organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights. UPLC has seven pending class action lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Northside Transformative Law Center is a Chicago-based organization that advocates for people navigating the criminal justice system.
Weil & Chardon LLC is a Chicago-based law firm that litigates civil rights, consumer protection, commercial disputes, and personal injury matters.