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Her son died in custody of the Dallas sheriff. She still doesn’t know what happened

Woman in beige sweater standing in front of a brick building.
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
Sophia Lewis' son Shamond suffered from a severe mental illness when he was arrested on a felony charge and taken to the Dallas County Jail. He later died in sheriff's department custody.

It’s been about three months since Sophia Lewis’ son Shamond died after being arrested and taken to the Dallas County Jail.

This is the second of two stories about Shamond and Sophia Lewis. Read the first story here.

She wants answers. For now, she only has questions.

Medical records say Shamond came to Parkland Hospital unresponsive. That was about thirteen hours after Dallas Police took him to the jail.

He died six days after arriving at the hospital.

Sophia wants to know what happened between his arrest and his arrival at the hospital. She was at the scene of the arrest. While he appeared to be having a psychotic episode, Sophia said he was otherwise physically fine.

Shamond’s severe mental illness is at the heart of his story. The 24-year-old had struggled with schizophrenia for about five years, sometimes landing in law enforcement custody and other times in the care of a mental health facility.

This time, he never came home.

“This is very life changing, I can’t even describe how I feel,” Sophia Lewis said. “But I need to be his voice.”

A disease that never goes away

Man, smiling, posing for a picture. Behind him is a window looking out onto a brick column.
Courtesy of Sophia Lewis.
Shamond Lewis.

Shamond coped with his illness as best he could. He lived on his own in an East Dallas apartment and took medication, his mother said. But she said Shamond still experienced emotional triggers that could lead to psychotic episodes. He even checked himself into a mental health facility this past summer during a dark period.

“He was trying to understand when he had those moments, or that trigger,” she said.

Sophia also said Shamond had had run-ins with law enforcement during previous psychotic “breaks” — those episodes when he lost touch with reality. That included spending time in the state psychiatric hospital in Terrell in 2018 after being declared mentally incompetent to stand trial for a criminal trespass charge. Other charges included drug possession, assault, and theft.

A recurring pattern for Shamond was being booked into the Dallas County Jail, then transferred to a hospital or mental health facility, and then released after treatment.

Sophia assumed that would happen again on September 22nd after her son was arrested for allegedly punching, choking, and threatening a man with a knife. One of Shamond’s neighbors called her and she drove to the scene. Sophia said she told officers multiple times she believed he was experiencing another break.

“I was assuming that everything got transferred over, communication-wise,” she said.

She didn’t hear again from law enforcement. Four days later, she got a call from a doctor at Parkland Hospital.

“Over the phone, she was like, ‘you may want to consider end of life care,’” she recalled. “And I just was emotional. I’m like, shaky.”

The jail

Public documents — and medical records obtained by Sophia’s lawyer — provide some detail about what happened at the jail. But there are still many questions.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department didn’t respond to interview requests.

A custodial death report filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office said Dallas police processed Shamond Lewis into the jail at 12:17 p.m. on September 22nd. He was placed on suicide precaution and at 11:34 p.m. transferred to the second floor. About an hour later, jail staff took Shamond to a room to change into jail clothes.

The report said Shamond refused to change. The staff then handcuffed him, changed his clothes, and placed him in a restraint chair. After that, they took him to get a medical assessment.

“As staff provided Lewis with water, he became unresponsive,” the report said. "Staff transported Lewis to the nurse’s station for medical attention.”

The report stated that paramedics transported Shamond to Parkland.

Parkland records said Shamond was unresponsive when he arrived at 1:53 a.m. on the 23rd. They also indicated he had cannabis in his system and trauma to his arm and face. The medical records said Shamond was “reportedly very agitated at jail intake, requiring multiple individuals to place him in restraints. After about ten minutes of struggle, his eyes reportedly rolled back and he became unresponsive.”

The records indicate he never regained consciousness and the death report said he was pronounced dead on September 29. Parkland referred inquiries to the county jail.

State law requires an outside agency to investigate all deaths in county jail custody. In this case, the Tarrant County Sherriff’s Department is investigating. It declined to comment.

dallas_county_jail.jpg
Shutterstock
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Seeking answers

Sophia Lewis said she has not been called by law enforcement since her son’s arrest. She questions their decision to require Shamond to change clothes and risk a further escalation.

“You cannot ask a mentally unstable person to take their clothes off,” she told KERA. “He's already, you know, not comprehending.”

Sophia’s lawyer, Steve Pipkin, said jail personnel should have known about his condition because Shamond had been there before.

“It would not be unforeseeable or a surprise that maybe this person, who unfortunately can act abnormal, might become irritated by something as simple as, ‘Sir, we’re sorry, but you have to change into this attire,’” Pipkin said. “In which case they should’ve handled it differently.”

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department refused to release video or documents relating to Shamond Lewis. They asked the Texas Attorney General to allow an exception to the state public records law because there is an open criminal investigation into Shamond’s death and there also may be a civil lawsuit.

Pipkin said they intend to sue.

So far in 2022, twelve people have died in the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, the highest in over a decade. That’s according to a list of deaths in custody maintained by the Attorney General’s office.

KERA requested a copy of Shamond Lewis’ autopsy, but it hasn’t been released. The Dallas County District Attorney’s office is asking for a legal opinion from the state on whether the autopsy can be shielded because it “relates to a pending criminal investigation and/or prosecution.”

Law enforcement and mental illness

Woman in uniform and facemask talking to other people in a meeting room.
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
Dallas Co. Sheriff Marian Brown.

The conversation around how law enforcement responds to patients with mental illness often focuses on that first, unpredictable interaction on the street.

Wayne State University professor Sheryl Kubiak said there’s been an increased push for training and awareness that must go beyond the initial arrest. Kubiak researches the intersection of the criminal and legal systems and behavioral health.

“We have to expand it not only to law enforcement officers on the street, but we also have to do it for law enforcement and corrections officers who are working in institutional settings,” Kubiak said.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 requiring new jailers to take a 40-hour training class on using de-escalation and crisis intervention tactics when dealing with people with mental health issues. It also mandated an eight-hour mental health course for all jailers.

Kubiak says 20 to 25% of people in jails nationally are like Shamond Lewis — folks with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and serious depression. And jailers don’t always know that that’s what’s going on.

“Because of confidentiality, it may be that just the medical staff has that information,” she said. “And I think that, unfortunately, jail administrators and jail staff aren’t generally trained in understanding mental illness or mental health.”

Sophia Lewis hopes that by speaking out, other mothers won’t experience the anguish she felt when the hospital called her.

“No one deserves to feel the way I felt that day,” she said. “No one.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.