The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas awarded a favorable settlement for the family of Amber May, who died by suicide in the Ochiltree County Jail due to poor training, screening, monitoring, and oversight. In addition to compensating the family for their loss, TCRP and the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic’s settlement requires heightened mental health screening at booking, improved monitoring of inmates, and the modification of cell conditions.
When Ms. May was arrested in 2014, she had disclosed her depression and other mental illnesses at the time of booking but was left unmonitored with access to phone cords — which she ultimately used to end her life, leaving behind two eight-year-old daughters.
This preventable tragedy is not uncommon in the state. County officials throughout Texas fail to respond adequately to the needs of jail inmates who have one or more serious mental illnesses and often ignore best practices in mental health policy, as well as those set forth by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
TCRP’s settlement comes as efforts to bolster available oversight mechanisms and ensure county jails are providing a safe environment for inmates with mental illness are coming to a head in Texas. One notable example is the Sandra Bland Act currently pending before the Texas Legislature which would improve oversight and mental health care in jail facilities.
Beyond the current legislative session, TCRP will double down on its efforts to eliminate the maltreatment and segregation of mental illness in the state. With active litigation in jail suicide cases against Harris County and Travis County, TCRP will continue to hold state and local governments accountable under the law.
Hani Mirza, Texas Civil Rights Projects’ Lead Attorney on the Case, said:
“The settlement is a great victory for both the family of Ms. May, who will now have some peace of mind knowing that justice was done in their daughter’s case, and for our broader efforts to bring greater jail oversight and accountability in Texas.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards and county jails across Texas have a responsibility to ensure they create proper policies, procedures, and training to prevent these tragic deaths. We are committed to stopping all future preventable deaths and ensuring that individuals with mental illness are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Terry and Beth May, Amber May’s father and step-mother, said:
“After many years, we are happy that justice was done in our daughter’s case. When she left this earth, she left behind two small daughters and a family that needed her. Her death could have been prevented if county officials had followed the procedures they needed to follow on how to treat people with mental illnesses.
We hope the settlement creates change in the county and throughout the state. No other family should have to go through what we did.”
- Coffey v. Ochiltree County: Reforms to Policies and Practices in County Jail
- The University of Texas at Austin School of Law Civil Rights Clinic Report: Preventable Tragedies How to Reduce Mental Health-Related Deaths in Texas Jails
(Press Release from Texas Civil Rights Project)