Christine Sexton's family made several calls to the River Oaks Jail on February 6. They'd paid a bondsman to bail her out as soon as she was transferred to the Tarrant County jail on a forgery charge she'd been picked up for four days earlier. They say a River Oaks dispatcher finally confirmed Sexton's transfer just before 9 that night.
The trouble was, the dispatcher was wrong. Three hours earlier, Sexton had been found dead in her cell, having hanged herself by tying a white tube sock around her neck, attaching it to the telephone cord provided in the cell and bending her knees so that her weight cut off her oxygen.
It was the city's second-ever jail suicide and the first in 24 years, the Star-Telegram reported at the time. "It's sad losing your life in a jail," River Oaks Police Chief Arvin Carter told the paper. "It's our job to protect the public, and it didn't happen in this case."
That's exactly the case the family is trying to make in federal court. Her father and daughter filed a lawsuit against the city of Red Oak -- as well as Legacy Inmate Communications, the company that provided the phone -- claiming they violated Sexton's constitutional rights by failing to take reasonable steps to keep her alive.
Their argument centers on a conversation Sexton had with her sister the day before her body was found. The sister was worried that Sexton hadn't showered or changed clothes since her last visit to the jail three days before. She was further alarmed when Sexton kept insisting that she wanted to hang herself but hadn't figured out how to do it.
According to the lawsuit, the sister told the River Oaks dispatcher about the suicide threats and said she believed her and planned to have her committed to a mental hospital after her bond was posted. According to the Star-Telegram, a police officer was sent to talk to Sexton and asked if she planned to kill herself. When she said no, she was returned to her cell.
The next day, jailers brought Sexton lunch around noon. They didn't return for six hours. No one ever determined how Sexton got the tube sock, but it wasn't hers.
We've left a message with Carter, the Red Oak police chief, and will update when he responds. Meanwhile, it's instructive to look at established case law involving jailhouse suicides. A very handy overview was presented to the Illinois Sheriff's Association in 2011.
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The attorneys who gave that presentation say plaintiffs in such lawsuits have to prove "deliberate indifference." In other words, jail or prison personnel have to be aware that an inmate is or might be suicidal and, after being made aware, have to fail to take reasonable precautions. In another case, which seems quite similar to Sexton's, family members told a police officer that an inmate was suicidal but, when the officer interviewed the man, he decided this wasn't the case and didn't inform the jail. The court in that case ruled in the family's favor.
Also seeming to weigh against Red Oak is the presence of a telephone cord in Sexton's cell. Telephone cords are among the most common methods of jail hangings, according to a brief UT Southwestern study that includes a pretty unsettling picture of a victim. There were cameras in the cell to monitor inmates, but they were turned away from the area containing the toilet and telephone cord. "It's a little privacy we give them," Carter explained at the time.
No word on whether the Red Oak jail has updated its suicide prevention policies, but, as of February, Carter was planning to make sweeping changes.
"Will we have to take away their socks, underwear and T-shirts?" Carter said. "I don't know. It gets cold in there without socks. Maybe we'll have to go to some type of overalls. ...We may have to install phones without cords or lower bunk beds. The cameras may need to be placed where there's no privacy for someone."