It was a minor crime. Robert Wayne Johnson was sentenced to two days in a rural Mississippi jail for failing to pay a fine. Three months later, still incarcerated in the Kemper Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility, Johnson committed suicide by strangling himself with his shoelaces.
Now, his widow has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Mississippi federal court against the county, sheriff, and several guards. In her lawsuit, LaToya Johnson alleges her husband was not only held beyond his release date, but that officials failed to provide him with mental health counseling and did not monitor him properly after other inmates warned guards he was suicidal.
No Job, No Money to Pay Fine
Johnson’s November 2017 punishment for not paying a fine to the Meridian municipal court was a two-day stay in jail and 199 hours of community service. He could not pay the fine, according to his wife, because the father of five had recently lost his job.
When he was not released after two days, Johnson began to panic, according to the lawsuit. He was worried that he had mistakenly received a felony charge sentencing. Johnson had previously struggled with mental health issues, and the lack of oversight regarding his release exacerbated his problems. Mississippi is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to offering mental health care access. Because the sheriff’s office did not monitor his release date, Johnson was still in jail 52 days later, on January 9, 2018, when he took his own life.
It should not have come as a surprise to jail officials that Johnson would eventually strangle himself with his shoelaces. Fellow inmates had seen Johnson tying shoelaces around his neck, as well as tearing towels and placing the strips around his neck, and notified guards that Johnson was contemplating suicide. While it is jail policy to put such inmates on suicide watch after receiving such information, that did not happen in Johnson’s case. According to the lawsuit, Johnson made at least one unsuccessful suicide attempt prior to actually killing himself.
When Johnson learned other inmates told guards about his suicidal intentions, he became angry, and got into a “scuffle” with one inmate. After the incident, he was placed in a segregation cell, which was not monitored. All of his jail belongings accompanied him to this cell, even though inmates warned he should not have his shoelaces with him.
Less than 15 minutes after Johnson was placed in the segregation cell, his suicide was successful. In addition to strangling himself, he also managed to slit his wrists with a razor blade.
Seek Help for Depression
In a statement made after filing the lawsuit, LaToya Johnson said that if anything should be taken away from her husband’s death, it is that there is nothing wrong with seeking help for depression.
“If you know someone that’s going through depression or some type of mental stress, please plead with them to get help. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with seeking that help and be their support system,” she said.
If you or a loved one suffered death or catastrophic injuries at the hands of the police, prison guards or jail staff, you may be entitled to damages. Visit our inmate abuse information page for more details. Ready to see if you have a case? CALL US at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn how we can help you file a federal civil rights lawsuit.