Jonathan Fano killed himself inside his East Baton Rouge Parish Prison cell in February, and his family filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city and parish claiming that jail officials failed to provide him with mental health treatment and subjected him to unbearable living conditions.
The family says officials knew the cell where Fano was placed posed known suicide risks.
Fano's mother, Maria Olga Zavala, filed the civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. The family and their attorneys held a press conference Wednesday morning at the courthouse in Baton Rouge.
Efforts to reach Casey Rayborn Hicks, spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, for comment were not successful.
According to the complaint, officials were "deliberately indifferent to the serious medical and mental health needs of all prisoners."
In addition to the city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, Warden Lt. Col. Dennis Grimes and Prison Medical Services are some of the defendants listed.
Fano, 27, hanged himself in his cell Feb. 2 and died three days later. According to his family, the city had already identified the cell as a possible suicide risk before his death. According to the lawsuit, the cell Fano was placed in was "filthy, decrepit, inhumane, and had dangerous physical conditions with clear suicide hazards."
Fano suffered from mental illness but consistently took medication, his family members said. Two of his sisters and one brother flew to Baton Rouge from Los Angeles this week.
Fano was arrested Oct. 31 by Baton Rouge police and cited with six misdemeanors: obscenity, criminal trespass, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, misdemeanor battery on an officer and simple criminal damage to property. He was taken to Parish Prison where he spent the next 94 days, 92 of them in solitary confinement, according to the suit.
He had boarded a bus in Miami, Florida, and was headed to his home in Southern California when "voices told him to" disembark in Baton Rouge on Oct. 30. The police found him the next day running around Seventh Street, "hollering and cussing at imaginary people," police wrote in his arrest report, according to the lawsuit. Fano told police that he and his imaginary friend, Titianna, were "cross dressers trying to find a show to make money," according to the suit.
"Jonathan was a smart, kind, gentle soul who struggled with mental illness," his older sister Dolores Zadikian said in a statement before the press conference Wednesday. "If he had been transported to the hospital rather than the jail, if he was provided treatment and medication rather than tortured in solitary confinement, he would be with us today."
The family's attorney Will Claiborne said that despite Fano's clear mental illness and repeated requests for treatment from prison officials, the services he did receive were deficient at best. For example, Claiborne said not long before Fano died medical staff concluded he was faking his condition and started weaning him off medication.
Jail staff also documented that Fano was often heard crying in his cell, according to the complaint.
Hours after entering jail, Fano attempted suicide by cutting his wrists, the suit says. Several appointments were made for Fano to see mental health care providers, but most of those appointment were not kept, the suit says.
"Jonathan died scared, alone and surrounded by people who didn't care for him," his younger sister Vanessa Fano said. "He didn't receive the treatment he needed just to function correctly. The Baton Rouge criminal justice system must be held accountable."
The family claims in their lawsuit that prisoner deaths are significantly more common within East Baton Rouge Parish Prison because it lacks a mental health unit. The complaint relies heavily on findings from an audit of the prison released last year, which, according to the complaint, recommended significant increases to the budget for medical, mental health and dental care inside the prison.
The suit seeks unspecified damages.
Fano's family members said they hope their case will continue shining a light on reforms.
"Jonathan ended his life, but that doesn't mean this will stop or change," Vanessa Fano said. "Someone needs to stand up and say something is amiss. That's what we're trying to do."