Jason Sisson spent his second-to-last night alive crashing to the floor of a central Virginia jail cell, bleeding, and banging on a metal shelf for help until he passed out again.
The next night, he would be brain-dead.
His mother filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court alleging that officers and medical staff at Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville ignored him at a time of peril. The suit seeks more than $103 million in damages.
Following Sisson’s death, a jail officer was fired for falsifying records saying he made required checks on the inmate when he had not, and a second officer was demoted.
The jail has a history of failings in medical care and mental health care for inmates. The U.S. Department of Justice previously investigated the jail, and a 2013 settlement agreement required the jail to fix failings.
Sisson’s death in 2017 is one of many questionable deaths in Virginia’s regional jails.
The regional jails are governed by boards with a variety of local officials on them, and the jails are directly overseen by a superintendent hired by the board. Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth and Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County are among those that have come under scrutiny in recent years over the quality of medical care and number of inmate deaths.
Regional jails “are accountable to nobody,” said Mark Dix, a lawyer for Sisson’s mother, Victoria Sisson.
“The way these things are made up, if you had a loved one who died in one of these jails, who would you vote out of office? There is just no redress at the ballot box for the injustices that happen here.”
James H. Davis, the superintendent of Piedmont Regional Jail, and a spokesman for Glen Allen-based Mediko Inc., the medical provider, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Sisson, 34, of Culpeper, arrived at the jail on June 8, 2017, and a month later was sentenced to nine months on a drug conviction.
In August 2017, another inmate attacked Sisson, who was taken to a local hospital with serious head injuries and then to VCU Medical Center in Richmond, where he remained for six days, being treated for skull fractures.
He returned to the jail Aug. 18 after doctors ordered that he be under close observation for 48 hours and given prescription medications. A jail officer was supposed to observe him every 15 minutes.
The lawsuit says he was not given a medical screening or assessment of any kind, in violation of jail policy. He called his brother at 7 p.m. on Aug. 19 to say he was scared, had blood in his ears, could not hear, could not see out of one eye and was not getting medical treatment.
The lawsuit, citing video footage of the cell, alleges the following timeline of events:
- As of Aug. 20, Sisson still had not been given a medical screening, after being sent back to the jail Aug. 18. He called his aunt the morning of Aug. 20 to say he needed help. Finally, at 12:28 p.m. Aug. 20, the jail took a sparse set of vitals on Sisson.
- The required 15-minute checks on Sisson never happened between at least 12:03 a.m. and 6:53 a.m. on Aug. 21, according to the lawsuit. An officer falsified a housing sheet to reflect that he had performed the checks, the lawsuit said. That was part of a probe last year by the Virginia Board of Corrections, whose investigator substantiated that the record had been falsified, and reported that the jail was not properly staffed or able to handle a patient with injuries like Sisson had.
Sisson spent the night rolling around and disoriented, repeatedly trying to stand up or crawl before passing out, and at times banging on a shelf or the cell door for help. His jumpsuit was around his ankles.
He hovered over the toilet and fell into his bunk, hitting his head and falling to the floor.
- A jail officer came into his cell at 3:49 a.m. after another officer saw Sisson rolling around. The officer saw drops of blood on the floor, blood on Sisson’s nose and saw him shivering and mumbling. He called a licensed practical nurse who tried to check him, and they left the cell at 4:09 a.m.
- At 5:05 a.m., Sisson began pounding on a metal shelf for several minutes, but no one responded. An officer went into the cell four minutes later.
“The guard departed at 5:10 a.m. without doing anything; he just stared at Sisson, then left,” the suit said.
Sisson banged on the shelf again, and then alternated between writhing around and passing out, at times awaking and banging on his cell door, the lawsuit said.
- At 5:56 a.m., an officer dropped off a breakfast tray and left. Sisson later pounded at the door again, holding his hand to a camera to show he had blood on him. At 6:15 a.m., an officer walked in his cell, looked at him and left.
- At 6:25 a.m., an officer came into the cell with an ice pack. Sisson tried to stand and crashed to the floor on his back. The officer gave him the ice pack and left. Sisson then writhed around for 16 minutes before banging on a stool. Sisson continued kicking his cell door and collapsing; a nurse finally entered the cell at 7:04 a.m., five minutes after he began foaming at the mouth.
She quickly returned with another nurse. The right side of Sisson’s body began moving involuntarily as they tried to dress him in his orange jumpsuit. At 7:10 a.m., someone from the jail called 911.
He was unresponsive when paramedics arrived at his cell at 7:22 a.m.
He was declared brain-dead that evening, and life support was removed the next day.
An autopsy found the cause of death to be complications from blunt-force injury to the head.
Dix, the lawyer, said the Sisson family’s hope with the lawsuit is to litigate a history of deaths at this particular jail.
“Nothing has worked,” he said. “The federal government has been unable to fix the situation at the jail. The commonwealth has been unable to fix the situation at the jail.”
A lawsuit in a 2016 death there, of an inmate named Thomas Cubbage, was recently settled for $230,000. The Sisson lawsuit notes that one of the defendants in the Cubbage lawsuit, Nathaniel C. Jones Jr., is the same officer who was fired for falsifying logbooks in the Sisson case.