Milwaukee Sheriff Sued Over Inmate’s Apparent Suicide

MILWAUKEE (CN) – The family of Antonio Cowser, an inmate who died in 2011 of dehydration and lack of food at the Milwaukee County jail, became the latest Wednesday to sue embattled Sheriff David Clarke Jr. for wrongful death.

“When Antonio was brought into the Milwaukee County Justice Facility on or about January 10, 2011, he was suffering from acute psychological disorders, having been sentenced to twenty-four days of confinement for ‘driving under the influence.’ Antonio died on or about January 23, 2011 as a result of the defendants’ failure to provide any care, treatment or assistance,” according to the complaint filed in Milwaukee federal court.

The lawsuit continues, “As a result of the defendants’ reckless disregard and deliberate indifference, Antonio perished from dehydration and lack of food, which is unacceptable, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

Cowser, 49, was found dead in his maximum-security prison cell after depriving himself of food and water to commit suicide.

Cowser’s mother and four siblings filed the suit against Sheriff Clarke, a jail inspector, two Milwaukee police captains, Milwaukee County, Armor Correctional Health Services Inc. and a doctor.

“Decedent’s mother, Ruby Cowser, was informed in 2011 that the cause of her son’s death was a heart attack,” the complaint states. “She was apparently misled as to the manner and means of the death of her son, and consequently no action was taken with respect to this case until plaintiff’s counsel informed her of the results of the medical examiner, indicating a probable suicide, and misconduct and mistreatment of her son while in custody, which directly led to his death. At that point, the Plaintiffs hired counsel and have filed this Complaint, in response to an investigation and the review of the medical examiner’s report.”

Upon arrival on Jan. 10, 2011, Cowser was placed in a special-needs section of the jail where he demonstrated “signs of acute psychological disorders, suicidal ideations and serious psychological distress and psychosis,” the complaint states. He reportedly told staffers that he intended to commit suicide and was transferred to a maximum security 24-hour solitary confinement cell.

The two police captains named as defendants, George Gold and Tiara Sheet-Walker, were assigned to monitor these prisoners every half hour to view and assure their safety and well-being.

“Capt. Gold, Brooks and Sheet-Walker knew that Antonio was depriving himself of food and water for purposes of committing suicide, and deliberately ignored providing adequate psychological care and failed to prevent it, as they had a duty to do under the color of state law, which resulted in his death,” the lawsuit states.

The jail contacted defendant Dr. Donald F. Stonefeld on Jan. 22 and advised him that Cowser was acting erratically, hadn’t eaten in four days and was urinating in his cell, not the toilet.

“Dr. Stonefeld, without examining Antonio, telephonically prescribed Haldol, via sub-cutaneous injection, to ‘calm him down,’ and deliberately, and without concern for any possible ramifications, did not consult with and discuss with the patient his psychological condition and risk of suicide,” Cowser’s family alleges.

The family accuses Stonefeld of “essentially condoning” Cowser’s suicide efforts because he received information about it but allegedly “did nothing except prescribe medication without seeing and evaluating patient.”

Cowser was found unresponsive shortly after 7 a.m. on Jan. 23 and died after unsuccessful attempts to revive him.

The medical examiner noted that Cowser was “lying clad only in his underwear on the floor” and his cell lacked a mattress, blanket and sheets or “any other item whatsoever” besides a Styrofoam cup with dried blood on it, according to the lawsuit.

His family argues that jail staff and clinicians “were deliberately indifferent in terms of monitoring, treating, and caring for Antonio, and had there been any attempt to treat him psychologically, including force feeding and forced rehydration, Antonio would have survived his incarceration.”

Walter Stern III, of Kenosha, Wis., represents the family, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages and a court order “specifying the terms and conditions under which people who are suicidal should be treated in a humane and appropriate way to prevent suicides in the Milwaukee County Jail.”

The Milwaukee County Office of Corporation Counsel, which acts as general counsel for the county, did not immediately respond Thursday to an email request for comment.

Sheriff Clarke has been under scrutiny for his management of the Milwaukee County jail where four inmates have died since last year, all of which are cited in the Cowser family’s lawsuit.

The sheriff was hit with two other lawsuits in March – one over a man who died of thirst in solitary confinement, and another from a woman who claims she was shackled while giving birth in the jail.

He was also sued in December over a baby who died just hours after being born in the jail.

Clarke is currently serving his fourth term as Milwaukee County Sheriff and recently turned down a position with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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