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Long Story Short: Subpar care led to Cleveland County detainee’s death, federal lawsuit claims

Oklahoma Watch, March 13, 2024

Cleveland County Detention Center staff recklessly disregarded Shannon Hanchett’s constitutional rights and contributed to her in-custody death amid a mental health crisis, a federal lawsuit filed on Jan. 25 claimed.

The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, Turn Key Health Clinics and three medical professionals who cared for Shannon Hanchett in the days leading up to her death are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which seeks relief and punitive damages over $75,000. Tulsa civil rights attorney Daniel Smolen filed the lawsuit on behalf of Daniel Hanchett, Shannon Hanchett’s widower, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Shannon Hanchett, a mother of two who was 38 at the time of her death, ran a bakery in downtown Norman and was affectionately known as the Cookie Queen. A Norman police officer arrested her at an AT&T store on Nov. 26, 2022, on a complaint of misdemeanor obstruction and false reporting.

Provided Norman baker Shannon Hanchett, 38, died in the Cleveland County jail on Dec. 8, 2022.
The officer stated in the arrest report that Hanchett suffered from a mental health disorder. During booking, Shannon Hanchett told jail staff she suffered from bipolar disorder and lupus but refused to answer further questions.

Shannon Hanchett’s physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly after being booked into the jail, the lawsuit claims, noting that medical staff did not evaluate her for more than 72 hours after arriving at the jail and did not administer any psychotropic medications. She was observed on multiple occasions lying naked on her cell floor in a catatonic state.

While medical staff reported that Hanchett displayed suicidal ideation and was severely dehydrated, jailers routinely missed 15-minute sight checks required under state law.

“It was abundantly clear that Ms. Hanchett was suffering from a condition that could not be, and was not being, adequately treated in a correctional setting,” the lawsuit reads.

On Dec. 7, licensed professional nurse Natasha Kariuki took Hanchett’s vital signs and recorded blood pressure of 88/52, meeting the medical definition of hypotension. The lawsuit alleges Kariuki’s failure to report the low blood pressure to a higher-level provider constitutes negligence and deliberate indifference.

Several hours later, jail staff found Hanchett unresponsive on the floor of her jail cell. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead about 1 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2022. She was scheduled for a mental health assessment eight hours later.

A state medical examiner’s autopsy report determined Shannon Hanchett died of heart failure with significant contributing factors of psychosis with auditory and visual hallucinations and severe dehydration. The lawsuit claims Turn Key Health Clinics’ contract with the sheriff’s office disincentivized staff from seeking more urgent care.

“Turn Key was responsible to pay just $40,000 per year for over-the-counter prescriptions and pharmaceuticals and $50,000 for off-site medical services,” the lawsuit reads. “These financial incentives create risks to the health and safety of inmates like Ms. Hanchett who have complex and serious medical and mental health needs.”

Representing the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, attorney Jessica Dark wrote that the plaintiffs failed to show evidence of a pattern of failures. She stated courts have frequently rejected efforts to hold government officials liable based only on allegations of single or infrequent prior incidents.

“A complaint alleging negligence in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not become a valid constitutional claim of medical mistreatment simply because the victim is an inmate,” Dark wrote in the motion to dismiss the filing submitted on Feb. 26.

Through their attorney, Meiliani C. Kaaihue, Kariuki and licensed professional counselor Diana Myles-Henderson claim they provided a level of care consistent with Hanchett’s symptoms, which included contacting Griffin Memorial Hospital personnel for a mental health assessment They stated she was observed at least 10 times by five different medical providers during her jail stay.

“Simply, Plaintiff disagrees with the care and treatment that was provided to Ms. Hanchett alleging such was inadequate and negligent,” the motion to dismiss filing reads. “However, as outlined by the multitudinous authorities above, these claims are not actionable.”

U.S. District Judge Scott L. Palk is presiding over the case. A hearing date on the matter is pending. In March 2023, Cleveland County commissioners voted to increase medical and mental health staff at the jail following the December 2022 deaths of Shannon Hanchett and Noble grandmother Kathryn Milano, both of whom were awaiting mental health evaluations. After the vote, county Commissioner Rod Cleveland said the move was in response to the jail’s growing population, not the in-custody deaths.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

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