- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Poor medical care and dangerous conditions at a Louisiana jail led to the death of a prisoner who hanged himself in his cell last year, a federal lawsuit says.

Relatives of Lamar Alexander Johnson sued East Baton Rouge Parish and its sheriff on Thursday, blaming the 27-year-old’s death on a “culture of violence and indifference to prisoner welfare” at the parish jail.

The suit claims Johnson is one of at least four people who have died at the jail since 2013 due to inadequate medical and mental health care. Johnson ingested synthetic marijuana in jail and wasn’t properly treated for a severe reaction to the “readily accessible” drug before he hanged himself in May 2015, the suit alleges.

“His extreme emotional distress was apparent to anyone within sight and sound of Mr. Johnson,” the suit says. “Rather than provide any medical or mental health care, (jail) staff ignored Mr. Johnson’s serious mental health needs.”

The jail isn’t adequately funded, staffed or supervised, and its staff members aren’t properly trained to provide mental health and medical care, the suit also says.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Sid Gautreaux’s office, called Johnson’s death “unfortunate and tragic” but said there are no “evidence or facts” to support the suit’s claims.

Linda Franks, Johnson’s mother, said her son didn’t have a history of mental illness or drug abuse. Learning that her son had hanged himself left her in “utter disbelief,” she said during a telephone interview Friday.

“He never ran away from adversity,” Franks said. “He never was one to hold onto negativity.”

Johnson was jailed for four days following his May 26, 2015, arrest by a Baker police officer, who stopped his car for having tinted windows. He was jailed on an arrest warrant from Jefferson Parish, where he had allegedly tried to pass counterfeit checks.

“Video and audio of the arrest show Mr. Johnson to be relaxed, engaged, and in complete control of his emotions,” the suit says.

Franks said she spoke to her son by telephone twice after his arrest, and he assured her that “everything was fine.”

But eyewitnesses described him as “deranged,” paranoid and suicidal after he ingested synthetic marijuana, according to the suit. Jail staff members also assaulted Johnson after he ingested the drug, the suit claims.

“This violent and abusive response by (jail) employees exacerbated Mr. Johnson’s condition, making him more paranoid and delusional,” it says.

Johnson spent hours in an isolation cell before he hanged himself, but nobody at the jail evaluated or treated his mental condition, the suit says. He was taken from the jail to a hospital, where he died several days later.

Johnson had a 3-year-old daughter and was helping to raise two stepsons before he died, according to his mother.

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