Flanked by jailers, 40-year-old Corey Carter of Valliant was led into the McCurtain County Jail’s shower room on Feb. 12 last year to change from his street clothes into a jail uniform.
Carter, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been arrested for possession of a firearm after a felony conviction. After he was booked in, he refused jailers’ requests to change into jail attire.
A struggle that ensued would lead to Carter’s death. His mother, Veda Carter, then sued the McCurtain County Jail Trust and others in federal court, alleging jailers were not properly trained to deal with a mentally ill inmate.
No McCurtain County employee was ever charged or disciplined in the case. And in late October, Carter’s mother settled with the Jail Trust for $200,000, with no admission of wrongdoing by the trust.
But the case evoked questions that every day confront jailers and local and state officials charged with safely and responsibly detaining thousands of Oklahomans with mental illness, while protecting jail employees and the public.
When and what force should be applied to a mentally ill person who simply won’t cooperate? What are the best approaches to defusing a tense situation? Which commands or rules must be followed regardless of a suspect’s mental state?
The answers can vary with circumstances, but the events of Carter’s death are ones that tend to spur deeper reflection.
Carter was diagnosed with schizophrenia more than a decade ago and suffered recurring psychotic episodes, Veda Carter said in an interview with Oklahoma Watch. He had been admitted many times to treatment centers on an in-patient basis.
Before the jail incident, he had received new medication due to his failing several times to take older medications that impaired his ability to function, Veda said. But doctors had been lowering his dosages. Veda said she had tried to get doctors to restore the previous dosage, to no avail. Carter’s symptoms “would come and go,” often brought on by stressful situations, she said. “I could always tell when it was happening,” she said.
The morning of Feb. 12, 2015, Veda and another family member, alarmed by Carter’s mental state, took him to Carl Albert Mental Health Center in McAlester to seek in-patient admission.
“You could tell he wasn’t himself,” Veda said. While waiting at the hospital, “he got to saying things like he was a construction worker and he worked for this company or that company, which wasn’t true.”
A clinician who examined Carter, however, concluded he did not meet the criteria for admission.
“I said, ‘What? Are you going to wait until he hurts somebody or somebody hurts him?’” Veda said. “I really cried. I took him back home and that’s the last time I saw him. He hugged me and said, ‘You’re so pretty, Mom.’”
At some point afterward, Carter left his home, police records show. Valliant Police Chief David Carrell reported receiving a call at 2:45 p.m. from a woman who alleged Carter had pointed a gun at her and others and threatened to shoot them.
The victim later told police she saw someone in a gray car let Carter out near a house, and that Carter walked past her toward an open field without saying anything. She followed him, and Carter turned and said with a balled-up fist, “Swing on me.” She told him she just wanted to talk. Carter walked off toward a nearby house.
A man later told police he was sitting in a truck outside the house of his brother-in-law, who was inside using the restroom. Carter walked across the yard, picked up a 12-gauge shotgun leaning against the garage door, and walked back behind a trailer home, the man said.
The man reported another man in a nearby house hollered at Carter, and he replied, “Y’all wanna (expletive) with me?” He held the gun with two hands but did not point it at anyone. He began muttering to himself, walked back to the house and put the gun back where he had found it, the witness said.
Carter got into the truck with the two brothers in law and said he wanted to leave town. But then Carrell, the police chief, arrived and ordered Carter out of the truck at gunpoint.
In an affidavit, Carrell said that when he found the shotgun, it was loaded and the hammer had been pulled back. Because he had a previous felony conviction for drug possession, Carter was taken to the McCurtain County Jail at 3:27 p.m. for the firearms violation.
The jailhouse video, which has no sound, shows Carter interacting with jailers during the booking process, with jailers and Carter smiling and talking a few times.
His mother said jailers there were familiar with him because he was often brought in before being transported to a mental-health treatment center.
During the booking, jailers brought out the jail uniform for Carter, but he refused to put it on. The change-out was temporarily postponed, according to both sides in the lawsuit.
The video shows that Carter willingly walked to a restraint chair and let jailers strap him in and wheel him to a cell. According to the suit, Carter sat in the chair for around four hours, but still refused to change into jail clothes.
Deputies decided to take him to the shower room and make him change, the lawsuit states. The video, which was filed as an exhibit in the lawsuit, shows that several minutes after Carter entered the shower room, a struggle began.
The lawsuit alleged that jailers applied improper holds to Carter and that bruises found on his body show he was defending himself from blows. Other inmates heard him yelling for help.
Jailers standing outside the room rushed in, and one of them began to shock Carter with a Taser. In the video, Carter’s face appears briefly in the frame of the door before he is pulled back in.
About seven minutes later, Carter’s naked, limp body was dragged out of the room by jailers and placed back in the restraint chair. He was wheeled back to his cell, and his pulse was checked several times over the next 10 minutes or so, the video shows.
He never regained consciousness. He was transported to Christus St. Michael hospital in Texarkana, Texas, where a doctor told Veda that Carter had suffered brain death. She made the decision to take him off life support. He was pronounced dead the day after the jail incident.
A report on Carter’s death by the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office shows Carter died of brain death brought about by a heart attack. Other factors included the Taser shock, the restraint and struggle, an enlarged heart, and acute methamphetamine intoxication.
Veda said Carter would take illicit drugs, usually marijuana, because he disliked the side effects of his prescription drugs.
“He self-medicated,” Veda Carter said. “ He said that calmed him without making him a zombie.”
The lawsuit against the Jail Trust, the Sheriff’s office and jailers alleged “a failure to adequately train staff to process and communicate with arrestees with a mental health condition,” which led to Carter’s death. The county had not provided crisis intervention training to jailers, state records show.
“(T)he need for more or different training on these particulars is so obvious that (the McCurtain County Jail Trust’s) failure to provide adequate training on these topics predictably led to the excessive, inappropriate, or unsafe use of force on Carter sufficient to result in a constitutional violation.”
In response, McCurtain County said Carter became combative during the change-out process, and jailers used reasonable force to keep Carter from harming himself or others.
The jailers’ actions were “consistent with the jail’s policies and procedures,” and the jailers involved were sufficiently trained and knowledgeable about use of use of force, a Taser, a restraint chair, first aid, and policies for accommodation of mentally ill inmates, the response states.
McCurtain County Sheriff Scott McLain, who also chairs the McCurtain County Jail Trust, did not respond to requests by Oklahoma Watch for an interview. Many records in the case were placed under seal by U.S. District Judge James Payne, including the Jail Trust’s charter and policy manual. An attorney for the Jail Trust refused requests by Oklahoma Watch to turn over the policy manual, saying it was exempt from the state Open Records Act and the public could not read the policies.