The family of a mentally ill man found dead inside an Arkansas jail wants its staff to be held accountable.
In a federal lawsuit filed on Jan. 13, the family of Larry Eugene Price Jr., 51, says Sebastian County Jail officers and the jail’s medical provider neglected to address his worsening health, causing him to die from dehydration and malnutrition.
“Everybody in a jail is entitled to basic medical care. Everybody knew how sick he was,” said Hank Balson, an attorney representing Price’s family.
Rodney Price filed the lawsuit on behalf of his deceased brother’s estate against Turn Key Health, the company’s psychiatrist Dr. Jawaun Lewis, Sebastian County, a jail nurse, and other unnamed defendants.
“There is no excuse for an atrocity like this to happen to a mentally ill man in an American jail. None,” attorneys for the family said in the lawsuit.
Larry Price had a history of mental illness and homelessness and had repeat encounters with Fort Smith law enforcement officers. A year before his death, Price walked into a Fort Smith Police Department station and began acting “irrationally” by cursing at officers incoherently the lawsuit says. After refusing to leave the police station, officers arrested him.
Balson said Larry Price’s family “were aware of his homelessness and disability.”
Balson says Larry Price had an aunt who would check on him occasionally but because Price “gets antsy” he would leave his aunt’s home.
Once at the Sebastian County Jail, Larry Price was charged with terroristic threats, and his bond was set for $1,000. Since Price could not afford the $100 — 10 percent of his issued bond — he was jailed.
Balson claims Price’s aunt and brother were unaware of his bail situation because jail staff would not share information related to his incarceration with them. He went on to say because Rodney Price was a former correctional officer, he felt Larry Price would be safer in jail than on the streets.
The lawsuit alleges that throughout Price’s incarceration, his mental disorder went untreated for months. He ate and drank fewer amounts of food over the course of his jail stay resulting in severe malnutrition. He weighed 185 pounds in August 2020, and a year later medical examiners found he weighed 121 pounds after his death. The lawsuit accuses Turn Key Health Clinics LLC, the jail’s medical provider, of neglecting his health.
“People can’t say, ‘we didn’t know what his illness or condition was.’ Everybody knew. That’s what’s confusing and outrageous. Both medical and custody staff knew how sick he was and knew he was losing weight,” Balson said.
In May 2021, the lawsuit says a Sebastian County judge ordered Price to undergo a psychiatric assessment to determine if he had the mental capacity to stand trial.
“All we know is the judge recognized Price had a severe mental illness, and he needed an evaluation to determine if he was competent to stand trial, but that was not scheduled for many months,” Balson said.
On the morning of Aug. 29, 2021, Price was found unresponsive in his isolation cell in a pool of standing water and urine. He was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. The autopsy determined his cause of death was from “acute dehydration and malnutrition,” according to the lawsuit.
Balson says Price’s family tried visiting the jail to learn of his well-being, but they were hindered by jail staff.
“The family didn’t know what Larry was going through in jail. His aunt tried to visit and get information about him, but jail staff wouldn’t allow him to be seen or spoken to,” Balson said.
Price was no stranger to Sebastian County Jail officers. Price was incarcerated “multiple times in 2019 and 2020” mostly for disorderly conduct and trespassing. The lawsuit says jail records indicate during Price’s prior incarcerations he would eat and throw his own feces, drink his own urine, and spit at and curse at jail staff. It also claimed Price ran around naked, among other erratic behaviors.
Price suffered from schizophrenia and psychosis, causing him to lose touch with reality. After treatment, Price would be allowed to return to the community, the lawsuit documents say.
The legal claim alleges jail staff stopped giving Price his antipsychotic medication after he refused to take it.
Balson says after Price’s refusal jail psychiatrist Jawaun Lewis “failed to provide nursing staff instructions on how to intervene with a treatment plan” if Price has future psychotic episodes.
“He remained unmedicated and untreated, locked in a solitary cell, completely neglected by the Turn Key medical and mental health staff,” the family’s filing says.
The claim alleges jail corrections officers falsified documents claiming they were conducting welfare checks on Price every 15 minutes when they were not.
“In August 2021, the jail documented 4,000 welfare checks on Price where it noted ‘inmate and cell OK’ despite his emaciated condition,” Balson said.
Jail officers “made at least ten additional entries, ‘Inmate and Cell OK'” even after Price was deceased, the claim alleges, calling the discrepancy a “system-wide problem.”
Turn Key Health, Sebastian County and Dr. Jawaun Lewis did not immediately return requests for comment on the allegations made against them in the family’s claim. However, Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion issued a statement on Jan. 17.
“The state police and prosecuting attorney already determined no one acted criminally,” Runion said in a video statement.
Runion says Price had previous convictions for violent crimes and “he was awaiting trial on assault charges and awaiting a mental health evaluation at another facility.”
Runion noted Price’s weight at 185 pounds upon entering the jail, and the autopsy report indicated he weighed 121 pounds when he died, 30 pounds more than the lawsuit alleges.
“The jail staff gave this inmate plenty of food and water every day. The jail medical staff were in constant contact with him,” Runion claimed. He went on to say an investigation is ongoing.
“The family is still struggling, trying to understand how this could possibly happen when his condition was so visible,” Balson said. “Rodney used to be a corrections officer himself, and he’s shocked because he knows how things were supposed to happen and didn’t,” he added.
The wrongful death lawsuit claims Larry Price’s civil rights were violated under the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit is seeking an unspecified amount for punitive and compensatory damages.