Maree v Blakeley
The ACLU of Georgia and David B. Shanies Law Office filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva – surviving parents of Jenna Mitchell, formerly known as Caleb Mitchell – against the Georgia Department of Corrections for violating Jenna’s rights under the American with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. The lawsuit asks for compensatory and punitive damages.
Jenna had a known history of serious mental illnesses and disabilities, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and of self-harming behavior. Despite this knowledge, GDOC’s officers intentionally discriminated against Jenna, under the meaning of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, by failing and refusing to provide her medical care during the suicide attempt, placing her in a one-person cell, failing to respond to her expressed suicidal intentions, failing to respond to her suicide attempt, not having a suicide tool available, placing Jenna in solitary confinement, and housing her in a cell dangerous to people at risk of self-harm with materials known to be dangerous to people at risk of self-harm.
The use of alternatives to solitary confinement, including “suicide watch” housing and other mental health observation units, is a well-known accommodation for inmates with mental health disabilities that place them at high risk for suicidal behavior.
GCHC makes mandatory recommendations to GDOC for housing inmates with disabilities. For example, GCHC would instruct GDOC that inmates who use wheelchairs must be assigned to accessible cells. Despite GCHC’s knowledge of Jenna’s severe mental illnesses, GCHC made did not recommend housing Jenna safely in light of her mental health disabilities. Thus, GCHC denied Jenna this reasonable accommodation for her disabilities.
Jenna was housed in a single cell with no cellmate. It was and is well-known in correctional management that individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities are far less likely to successfully die by suicide if they are evaluated or housed with another person. The presence of another person both deters suicide attempts and allows for someone to rapidly intervene in the event of an attempt. Despite the availability of this reasonable accommodation, neither GDOC nor GCHC took any steps to house Jenna with another person.
GDOC and the Board (acting as GCHC) were, at all relevant times, recipients of federal funds, and thus covered by the mandate of the Rehabilitation Act. The Rehabilitation Act requires recipients of federal money to reasonably accommodate persons with mental disabilities in their facilities, program activities, and services, and to reasonably modify such facilities, services, and programs to accomplish this purpose.
GDOC and GCHC failed and refused to reasonably accommodate Jenna Mitchell’s mental disabilities while in custody, in violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. Those failures and refusals proximately caused Jenna’s death.
UPDATE: On December 6, 2021, the Georgia Department of Corrections agreed to a $2.2 million settlement.
October 24, 2019
Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva, surviving parents of Jenna Mitchell, f/k/a Caleb Mitchell, deceased
David B. Shanies Law Office
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, Inc.