Champaign County Facing Million Dollar Lawsuit for Jail Death

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On August 8, 2016, attorney Shayla Maatuka sent a letter to Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie requesting a million dollar settlement for the wrongful death of Toya Frazier, who died in the Champaign County jail. The letter is a chance to negotiate before a lawsuit is filed. As Smile Politely reported in May, others in the jail heard Frazier screaming in pain throughout the previous night from heroin withdrawal, and said that guards denied her medical care.

After lying on a cell floor for more than an hour, Frazier was found dead on December 1, 2015. Since then there have been two additional deaths in the jail―Paul Clifton on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, from an asthma attack, and Veronica “Love” Horstead on June 10, 2016, from what was also likely drug withdrawal.

This November, in addition to the presidential election, voters will also have the opportunity to weigh in on a referendum for a Champaign County-wide quarter-cent sales tax, what is being billed as a “facilities tax,” but which will largely go towards expanding the county jail. For the last five years, Sheriff Dan Walsh has been campaigning for an expansion of the jail. According to newly-hired County Administrator Rick Snider, the project will cost $18 million, although in the past costs have been estimated at up to $32 million.

In Champaign, there is another upcoming referendum asking residents to pass $183.4 million in funding for a new high school and other school facilities upgrades.

Loving Grandmother

As Maatuka explains in her letter to the Board, “On December 1, 2015 at approximately 2:00 a.m., Ms. Frazier began screaming and crying in her cell, complaining of severe abdominal pain.”

One woman also incarcerated in the jail said during an interview with state police investigators that when Frazier complained, “the correctional officers laughed at her and offered no medical assistance.”

She was put in an empty cell and placed on medical watch, where guards were supposed to conduct checks every 13 minutes. Video in the cell captured Frazier having a seizure and laying still for 80 minutes before being discovered by a guard.

Activists protested the three deaths at a County Board meeting in June. To quell public concern, the Sheriff showed the video to the County Board chair and Board members, but they were sworn to secrecy. Yet, as Maatuka indicates in her letter, the Frazier family has not to date received a copy of the video.

According to the letter, Frazier was a “loving grandmother” of seven grandchildren. Bryson, one of her grandchildren (pictured), often stayed at Frazier’s house, and the two of them were “exceptionally close.” Since Frazier’s death, “Bryson cries daily asking where she is and begging his parents to see her. Ms. Frazier is sorely missed.”

Maatuka presents as a “settlement recommendation” more than one million dollars in compensation: $500,000 for wrongful death, $500,000 for grief, sorrow and mental suffering.

I spoke with County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie, who said the State’s Attorney had passed the case to Heyl Royster, a private attorney firm the county often hires to resolve civil suits (although the State’s Attorney already employs Barbara Mann to handle civil cases, at an annual salary of $106,000). It was given to Keith Fruehling (pictured), who failed to return my phone call.

“I don’t think I should make any comment since the family is suing the county,” Petrie told me. “I think that’s the best response.”

The county will likely offer a settlement, but any amount of money can never make up for a lost life.

“Humane” Jail Plan

A local community organization, Build Programs, Not Jails, has been fighting the Sheriff’s plan for a jail. Albert Stabler, one of the members, criticized the upcoming referendum as a solution to the recent deaths in the jail. “As well as more comfortable booking and visiting areas, the construction proposal for the jail includes a 30-bed medical unit―but no improvements in the minimal level of medical staffing are anticipated.”

What he said was a “supposedly humane jail” would take the place of real social services. He noted that efforts toward a community-based drop-off center for those who need immediate medical care and drug intervention have been stalled by Sheriff Walsh.

If the referendum passes, Stabler said it would “consolidate the role of the jail as the county’s main provider of mental health care to low-income Black people.” According to information collected by the group, Black people are as much as 70 percent of the jail population. Indeed, all three who died in the jail were African American.

We, as a community, must find solutions to the social and economic crisis that is happening right now. In Champaign-Urbana, we see the erection of tall glass buildings across town for student housing at top dollar, while we are told that there is no money for social services. We must demand better for all C-U residents.

You can see a copy of the letter here: publici Toya Frazier letter to board

This article originally appeared in Smile Politely. Reprinted with permission.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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