News and Tribune

Floyd County

June 12, 2014

Pepper spray, clothing spark possible lawsuit in Floyd County

Louisville attorney to file suit for jailers’ alleged misconduct

NEW ALBANY — The attorney of a New Albany woman who was pepper sprayed while in an isolation cell at the Floyd County Jail in late March said she is preparing to file a suit in a federal court.

Louisville attorney Laura Landenwich said her client Tabitha Gentry, 31, had her constitutional rights violated while being held in the jail for nearly seven hours without proper clothing March 30.

Before being transported to the jail by Indiana State Police, Gentry was taken from a New Albany home on preliminary charges of public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting law enforcement. Police reported Gentry was “being so loud and kicking at us that traffic on Charlestown Road was stopping to watch.”

But it’s the behavior that took place after Gentry arrived to the jail is what got Landenwich’s attention and has her ready to file a federal law suit. Landenwich said Gentry was brought to the jail at 4 a.m., and spent seven hours without clothing in a padded holding cell and was pepper sprayed before she was provided a jail-issued jumpsuit and released from the cell.

Floyd County Sheriff Darrell Mills said he sees the situation differently, however.

“I don’t feel like we did anything wrong,” Mills said Wednesday. “We have policies and procedures to handle situations of out-of-control inmates, and that is what we attempted to do.”

Mills went on to say that he is withholding making a full judgment on possible misconduct of his jail staff.

“I’m going to wait and see how all this comes about. We are doing a review of everything now, but it takes a long time to do that. Any complaint I look at, but it is hard to look at a complaint that is only being aired on the news,” he said. “Appropriate action is going to be taken, if there is a problem with this particular situation.”

Mills said that he has received no notification of any intent of legal action from Gentry or Landenwich.

He said Gentry has not made a complaint to the sheriff’s department of the incident, and that the only official communication he has had with Gentry or her attorney is when Landenwich requested the surveillance video from the jail, which spurred him to notify the Sheriff’s Department’s legal counsel.

“Obviously, when it is a lawyer, our lawyers get involved,” Mills said, adding he remains unsure what allegations may be brought against the jail. “Basically, I don’t have a complaint. I only have what they are putting on the news, so I don’t know what to look for.”

Although a legal complaint has not been filed, Landenwich said the allegations made by Gentry are a serious matter. She claims Gentry was “tortured” by jail employees who unjustifiably filled the cell where Gentry was held with pepper spray.

Landenwich has reviewed surveillance footage of the incident and said there are no doubts Gentry’s rights were violated by jail staff.

Landenwich said early in the video a handcuffed Gentry is sitting in the jail having an exchange with jail staff.

“They claim she was cussing at them. She doesn’t recall what she said, but she was upset,” Landenwich said. “Then you see her stand up, and after she stands up, three officers just descend on her. They grab her around the neck. They grab her body, and she is still totally handcuffed.”

Landenwich says the officers then take her into “this so-called padded cell.”

“They hold her there, and they strip her boots, pants, underwear, and then shirt and bra,” she said. “[Gentry] had been there for less than 10 minutes when that happened.”

Landenwich said Gentry is then seen in the cell by herself and completely unclothed.

“She sits there for a little while, for about 20 minutes, and then she starts banging on the door and asking for clothes,” Landenwich said. “She recalled, that they told her, ‘If you don’t shut up, we are going to pepper spray you.’”

She said about 30 minutes later, at approximately 5:10 a.m., a jailer filled the room with pepper spray after sticking a pepper spray canister into the area.

“You see a can of pepper spray put into the room and they spray it like you would spray air freshener into a room,” Landenwich said. “And, then for 40 minutes [Gentry] is left in there without clothing while that chemical is on her entire body because she is naked.”

She said Gentry had no option but to endure the chemicals that permeated the cell.

“It is sort of like a makeshift gas chamber,” Landenwich said. “That sounds a little dramatic, but I don’t know how else to describe it, and that is just torture.”

She said by the use of the pepper spray, the jailers exercised cruel and unusual punishment.

“In order to use force against an individual, there has to be some sort of officer safety or public safety implicated that justifies the force,” Landenwich said. “I can’t fathom what law enforcement purpose, what threat she was to anybody at that jail at that moment.”

Mills said there is protocol that his jail staff must adhere to when using a Taser or pepper spray, adding “If that was done out of policy, then that will be dealt with, obviously. My understanding of it is, [Gentry] was hitting and kicking the door and screaming and hollering at [the jail staff], and I don’t know at what point they [used the pepper spray].”

The whole incident is under review by the Sheriff’s Department, and, specifically, the use of the pepper spray, Mills said, “That might be an issue that we have to look at.”

Landenwich said as Gentry  was allowed wash the chemicals from her eyes minutes before 6 a.m., while jailers cleaned the cell, “presumably, to get the pepper-spray chemical out of there.”

She said when Gentry returns to the cell, her back is covered with a blanket, “but, her front side is completely exposed, and she is still in handcuffs.”

Landenwich said Gentry’s body was exposed as she was escorted through the jail’s large booking area where “anybody and their brother could be walking through at that time,” and that male jailers were present.

Mills said he has a limited staff, and that two female jailers were addressing the situation, but male personnel were needed as unpredictable and possible intoxicated inmates pose a safety hazard to staff and themselves.

Landenwich said when Gentry returned to the cell about 6:20 a.m., she had a garment draped over her that was wet from the shower.

“And she sits in there for five hours with a wet blanket and no other clothing,” Landenwich says.

She said the video footage of the five-hour period that Gentry sat in the room has segments where it is unclear what took place, saying that the footage and the time displayed “freezes for very, very long periods of time” then skips to later times.

Landenwich said she does not know if any jail staff entered the cell during the periods where the video is frozen, but that Gentry did remain in the room.

She said it is clear from the video that at 10:55 a.m. the cell’s door is opened, and Gentry is given a jail-issued jumpsuit, which she puts on.

Mills said the garment provided to Gentry immediately after she entered the cell was a “paper smock” and that is was sufficient to cover her body.

“You can wrap it around [your body]. It is jail-approved clothing that you cannot use to harm yourself,” he said, adding “ ... if she chooses to throw it over in a corner and not wear it, I can’t do anything about that.”

Mills said his staff appears to have followed procedure and feels that proper steps were taken to prevent the combative, erratic and possibly unstable Gentry from harming herself.

Landenwich said she hopes a federal judge will recognize what she considers to be mistreatment undergone by her client.

“We don’t treat prisons of war in Afghanistan like this. It is inhumane. These are the types of human rights violations that international courts deal with, not something in an American small town.”

Mills says the public should follow his lead of withholding judgment, until all factors related the incident are better understood.

“You have to look at the whole scenario. It is not what two minutes of video can show,” he said. “The video does probably look bad, to the public, but they haven’t looked at the whole thing.”

Mills said the Floyd County Jail follows guidelines set by state and federal officials, who approve the facility’s policies and procedures.

Landenwich said she will seek financial compensation for her client and an order from a judge that the jail staff cease it’s alleged unlawful actions.

“There is no doubt in my mind that they violated her constitutional rights. I have litigated a lot of these cases, and I know what standard procedure is under jails that operate within the bounds of the constitution, and Floyd County Jail is way outside the bounds.”

Mills said the jail staff only reacted to Gentry’s unruly behavior, and he looks forward to the option of  a judge presented with all the evidence making a final ruling.

“The bottom line here is, if she would have cooperated, there would not have been a problem,” Mills said. “Everybody puts the twist on it like we did something wrong here, and we will let the courts determine if we did anything wrong or not.”

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