Death of Trans Woman in Georgia Prison Leads to $2.2 Million Settlement

Jenna Mitchell was held at Valdosta State Prison in Georgia.
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The family of a transgender woman who died by suicide following a stint in a Georgia state prison has landed a $2.2 million wrongful death settlement.

The settlement, which was first reported by CNN on December 7, was reached four years after Jenna Mitchell died in a case that prompted her family to proceed with a federal civil rights lawsuit. Attorney David Shanies, who represented the family of the late Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died at Rikers in 2019, is also representing Mitchell’s family.

Mitchell, 25, was being housed with men at Valdosta State Prison, where her family said she was often held in solitary confinement over the course of eight or nine months, despite suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and untreated gender dysphoria, according to the lawsuit, which was obtained by Gay City News.

On December 2, 2017, Mitchell’s mother, Sheba Maree, called the prison to inform officials that her daughter threatened suicide. Maree asked the prison to place her on suicide watch, but a prison employee assured Maree that her daughter “was already ‘in medical’ for a suicide attempt and was ‘okay,'” the lawsuit noted.

Yet, two days later, Mitchell was placed in solitary confinement without any suicide watch — and on that same day she told a prison official that she was planning suicide. In response, a sergeant allegedly told her, “Then kill yourself, I don’t have anything to do with that.”

At 1:30 p.m. that day, Mitchell asked two officials to go to her cell. The officials subsequently arrived to find a noose around her neck, at which point Mitchell again stated her intention to die by suicide, according to the lawsuit.

That warning sign did not prompt prison officials to take any action. Instead, Correction Officer James Lee Roy Igou walked away and allegedly ignored other inmates when they tried to alert him that Mitchell was “taking steps” towards a suicide, the lawsuit stated. Igou laughed and shouted down the cell block to say that Mitchell should avoid dying by suicide until he returns because he “want[ed] to see.”

By 1:35 p.m., an inmate told prison officials that Mitchell was hanging in her cell — and five minutes later Igou and Sergeant Wallace Richardson found Mitchell hanging by her neck inside her cell. Still, they did not try to lift her up in an effort to save her.

Prison officials searched unsuccessfully for a life-saving “cut down” tool used to cut the bed sheets, but there were no cut down tools available, according to the suit.

Mitchell was sent to a hospital and later died on December 6 following a coma that lasted two days.

The lawsuit pointed to injuries on Mitchell’s face that reflected physical violence, which the prison said was a result of falling off a gurney twice while en route to the hospital. The lawsuit asserted, however, that the injuries were inconsistent with falling off a gurney and, instead, were likely the result of physical violence.

Igou was fired weeks later for placing feces in a spray bottle and spraying inmates, the lawsuit said.

Notably, the case resembled the 2019 death of Polanco, who was left to die by guards in her “restrictive housing” cell at Rikers in New York City while she fatally suffered seizures caused by epilepsy.

“A common thread in both Jenna Mitchell and Layleen Polanco’s deaths is the utter disregard corrections officials showed for the lives of incarcerated trans women,” Shanies told Gay City News on December 7. “Both women were left to die by governmental officials whose responsibility was to keep them safe. Both deaths were easily preventable. When will it stop?”

Polanco’s case led to a $5.9 million settlement and the suspension of 17 Department of Correction officers.

In September, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in Georgia, including LGBTQ people, and an Obama-era investigation once looked into sexual abuse by staff and prisoners in the state. Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman who has been in a men’s prison in the state, sued the Georgia Department of Correction after she alleged multiple sexual assaults and said her hormones were being withheld.

A spokesperson for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, declined to comment.

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