CLEVELAND – A federal lawsuit is alleging that a mentally ill man was arrested, jailed and denied basic care until he was rushed to the hospital with injuries that would take months to recover from – and that this is a routine occurrence for the City of Cleveland and Bolivar County.  

Defendants have contested this claim and denied all of the allegations brought against them.

The lawsuit centers around a single plaintiff, Kenyarda Graham, who has a history of mental illness.

According to the lawsuit, Graham was arrested on July 4, 2016, “because allegedly [he] was in the street, in his underwear being loud and disorderly.” He was placed in a jail cell that had a hole in the ground instead of a toilet and a bed, the suit states.

The Cleveland Police Department’s policy for dealing with the mentally ill instructs law enforcers to take them to the nearest mental hospital.

Instead, Graham was kept in his jail cell for 20 days where he, “tore the mattress he was provided; he tore off his clothes; he crawled around on his hands and knees; and spread feces on the walls and floor,” reads the lawsuit. It also alleges that he was not given any treatment for his mental illness until July 24.

On that day, Graham was found in his jail cell lying face down over the waste hole. The lawsuit alleges that he was brought to a hospital, where medical staff found he had “knee wounds that had become so infected that he now had sepsis and rhabdomyolysis.”

He ultimately wound up at University of Mississippi Medical Center, where the lawsuit states, he underwent more procedures and needed extensive therapy to be able to walk again.

“Despite the city’s adoption of policies for the management of mentally disturbed individuals by law enforcement … it is the widespread practice of the personnel of City of Cleveland and the Cleveland Police Department to disregard those policies and routinely incarcerate mentally disturbed individuals,” the lawsuit reads.

In a motion to dismiss, city attorneys wrote that police deviated from the standard practice in this case because the defendant’s brother, Robert Graham, works for the police department, and he told the police chief that the family would be handling Kenyarda Graham’s commitment procedure.

“The only other place Kenyarda Graham could have been detained was the Capps Mental Health Center. However, Capps would not have taken Mr. Kenyarda Graham because he was threatening officers on July 4, 2016 and the Capps’ policy is not to hold any person exhibiting violent behavior,” the motion to dismiss states.

Robert Graham has disputed this claim in an affidavit, stating that he never initiated or agreed to handle Kenyarda Graham’s commitment proceedings.

The city also argues that because people who have been arrested are housed in a jail managed by the county, there’s no way they could have known that Kenyarda Graham allegedly wasn’t receiving the care he needed.

For its part, the county has denied any alleged wrongdoings in Kenyarda Graham’s case.

The complaint doesn’t name a specific dollar amount that Kenyarda Graham is seeking, only that he be awarded damages and reasonable expenses incurred during litigation.

It has also been argued through court filings that all defendants should receive qualified immunity, which protects government officials as long as they clearly didn’t break a law or knowingly violate someone’s constitutional rights.

The litigation is at somewhat of a standstill right now. Until U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Virden rules on whether the defendants will receive immunity, no evidence can be gathered in the case.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.