VALDOSTA — The parents of an inmate who died at Valdosta State Prison in 2017 are suing the state prison system, claiming her suicide was made possible by deliberate "indifference" to her medical and mental health needs, according to court documents.

Sheba Maree and Jeff Spiva, the parents of Jenna Mitchell — born Caleb — are suing the Georgia Department of Corrections, former Valdosta State Prison warden Don Blakely, a correctional officer and the Georgia Board of Regents over Mitchell's suicide, according to an amended complaint filed Aug. 30 in the Middle District of Georgia federal court.

Mitchell suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and "gender dysphoria" — a conflict between her birth gender and the gender she identified with, the complaint claims. She had a history of suicide attempts as well, according to the complaint. 

She was imprisoned for robbery by intimidation, according to the corrections department.

On Dec. 2, 2017, Maree called the prison to warn them Mitchell had threatened suicide and urged officials to place her on suicide watch; instead, two days later, Mitchell was placed in solitary confinement, the plaintiffs claim.

That day, Mitchell reportedly told a correctional officer she was going to kill herself, according to the lawsuit; Mitchell's parents allege that, instead of trying to prevent her death, the correctional officer laughed and encouraged her to commit suicide. The correctional officer denies these claims in an official response to the lawsuit filed with the court.

In the correctional officer's absence, Mitchell hung herself, according to court documents.

No "cut down" tool for cutting through sheets was available, and prison authorities had placed her in a cell with a "tie off" point where sheets could be tied for suicide attempts, the lawsuit alleges.

When Mitchell died, she had severe injuries which were attributed to her falling off a gurney twice while being taken to the hospital, the complaint claims. The plaintiffs believe the prison allowed Mitchell to be physically assaulted at some time, according to the lawsuit.

The Board of Regents — which oversees the state's university system — is a defendant through its subsidiary, Georgia Correctional Health Care, which provides mental health and psychiatric care to state prisoners. GCHC is being sued for reportedly not requiring prison officials to place Mitchell in a cell appropriate for a person with mental illness and for not providing her with adequate mental health care, the lawsuit states.

Both the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Board of Regents declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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