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Dolores Zadikian, sister of Jonathan Fano who committed suicide in 2016 in the East Baton Rouge Prison, speaks in 2017 about her brother. Fano's family is suing the city-parish, claiming bad conditions and deficient medical and mental health care inside the prison.

The majority of claims alleging grossly inadequate medical and mental health care in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison led to a 2017 in-custody suicide have grounds to proceed, a federal judge has ruled.  

In a 46-page decision issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge John deGravelles allowed the civil suit brought by a mother of a 27-year-old mentally ill man who died after three months in the jail to move forward. The suit claims that insufficient funding, staffing and medical care violated his constitutional rights, contributing to his death. 

Maria Olga Zavala "clearly alleges that the city/parish’s policy of inadequately funding (the prison) contributed to systematic constitutional deprivations and ultimately resulted in Fano’s suicide," deGravelles wrote in the decision.

Zavala filed the civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in September of last year after her son, Jonathan Fano, committed suicide in the jail months earlier.  

"Our clients are very excited that they finally get to move into this case," said Will Claiborne, an attorney representing Zavala in the lawsuit. "(Now) we can really uncover information that the parish and sheriff’s department don’t want us to have.”

Fano was arrested on misdemeanor counts three months before he died, when police found him naked and behaving erratically in Baton Rouge. After he was booked into Parish Prison, the lawsuit alleges, he was housed in solitary confinement — often out of his cell for less than 20 minutes a day. The suit claims he did not receive proper medical or mental health treatment, despite his repeated pleas for help.

During a medical visit in the weeks before he died, the suit says, a doctor expressed doubts that the prisoner had "serious mental illness" and reduced Fano's medication until it was eventually discontinued. 

Moreover, Claiborne said, an independent consultant months before Fano's death had found and explicitly reported that the prison's conditions were deplorable and that inmates  held there were receiving inadequate mental health care.

"They knew this jail was not up to standards," Claiborne said. "It’s just shocking that they would have this audit in hand, know that other people died in this jail, … and still put Jonathan in that cell for 92 out of 93 days and decide that he’s faking.”

The lawsuit can move foward against the city and parish government, East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and his warden Dennis Grimes, as well as jail's contracted medical provider at the time of Fano's death, deGravelles ruled. While the Sheriff's Office operates the jail, the parish is legally obligated to provide its funding, the judge noted.

An attorney for the city and parish government said they do not as a matter of policy comment on ongoing litigation. However, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office pointed out that the ruling is only based on the "face of the complaint" and the allegations by the plaintiffs. 

"The Sheriff is confident once the court has an opportunity to review the evidence, the lawsuit will be dismissed," wrote Sheriff's spokeswoman Savannah Jones in a statement. 

Fano is part of a growing list of men who died in recent years while in custody at Parish Prison. These include the 2016 death of Tyrin Colbert, a 17-year-old who was killed by his cellmate.

Colbert's family also brought a lawsuit against the jail's officials claiming poor operations, care and staffing, and are represented by Claiborne in those ongoing proceedings. While both cases expect victim compensation, Claiborne said the main goal is to bring change to the jail. 

"The sheriff knows, the parish council knows that this jail kills people, and they openly talk about it but none of them have the courage to fix it," Claiborne said. "What are they going to do about it? When will enough people have died for them to stop talking and start acting?”

Between 2012 and 2016, 25 inmates died while being held in Parish Prison — an inmate death rate 2.5 times the national average, according to a July report released by researchers with the Promise of Justice Initiative.

Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Erika Green requested that the researchers of that report present their findings and recommendations at Wednesday's council meeting. 

“I’m trying to bring visibility to some of the issues at Parish Prison," Green said. "I’m hoping it’s a start of addressing the medical treatment and the mental health facilities (there). ... I think we can work on our processes until we get a new prison.”

Green said she hopes fellow council members listen to the report's recommendations for the jail, which include sufficient staffing, reconsidering pre-trial detention, improving medical services and increasing transparency about incidents in which people at the jail are harmed.

She said she doesn't expect any changes to come right away. She also said she wants to understand how much money is being spent by the city and parish in the many ongoing lawsuits over Parish Prison.

Claiborne said more awareness is helpful but that action is needed to address the problems. 

"Do something," Claiborne said. "Everyone in Baton Rouge should want that. It is a stain on the reputation of the city that these things keep happening in this jail.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.