Robert Wayne Johnson, pictured here with his daughter, was a Meridian man who died of suicide Jan. 8 2018 in the Kemper Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility. His family is now suing the Kemper County Sheriffs Office.

A new lawsuit against the Kemper County sheriff and five correctional officers alleges jail staff ignored the mental health issues of a man who hanged himself with shoelaces in his cell last year.

Jailers also ignored clear evidence that the man, Robert Wayne Johnson, intended to kill himself on Jan. 8, 2018, according to the complaint, which was filed in federal court Monday by the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law on behalf of Wayne Johnson’s family. Wayne Johnson’s suicide occurred 14 minutes after he was placed in an unmonitored segregation cell.

He had previously struggled with mental health issues and had been admitted for mental health inpatient services on prior occasions, the complaint notes.

“We simply can’t ignore the reality that many people wind up in jail due solely to mental illness or substance abuse arising from self-medication of mental health issues,” said MacArthur director Cliff Johnson in a news release.  “If we’re going to continue this wrong-headed practice of locking up people who instead need to be receiving mental health care in an appropriate community-based clinical setting, then counties and local law enforcement officials need to brace themselves for the lawsuits that will inevitably result.”

The suit names Kemper County Sheriff James Moore and several other jail staff, including warden Johnny Crockett, as defendants.

Neither Moore nor the attorney for the board of supervisors could be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

Wayne Johnson, a Meridian resident, was incarcerated at the Kemper Neshoba Regional Correctional Facility for failure to pay fines to Meridian Municipal Court, the complaint reads.

Following Wayne Johnson’s death, Moore himself told the Meridian Star that county jails required more resources from the state to help inmates with mental illnesses: “Jail is not therapy. It is not where they belong,” Moore said at the time.

‘Jail has been the go-to spot for all the mentally ill’

In November 2017, a judge had sentenced Wayne Johnson to two days of incarceration and 199 hours of community service. The complaint alleges Wayne Johnson was unlawfully imprisoned another 52 days until his death in January 2018 at the jail because the sheriff’s office failed to properly monitor release dates.

“If people take anything away from his death, let it be this – it’s OK to seek help for depression,” said Wayne Johnson’s widow LaToya Johnson in a statement. “If you know someone that’s going through depression or some type of mental stress, please plead with them to get help. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with seeking that help and be their support system.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.