This story was updated Feb. 21, 2018, at 11:02 p.m. with more information.
Family members say their 45-year-old mother died at Silverdale Detention Center in 2017 because staff used pepper spray on her, causing her to choke and suffocate.
India Palmer is asking CoreCivic, a private prison contractor that has managed Silverdale since 1984, for $15 million in the death of Dana Shunice Palmer, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hamilton County Circuit Court.
Palmer says three Silverdale guards watched her mother stick a drug-related object in her mouth on Feb. 22, 2017, and never tried to remove it. Instead, they used pepper spray on Dana Palmer's eyes and mouth, the suit says. That caused her to cough, choke on the object and later suffocate and die, the family says.
"On information and belief, [CoreCivic] staff at Silverdale had a policy instructing staff to spray female detainees with pepper spray as the first action or consequence when a female detainee did not immediately follow a staff member's order," the suit says.
A medical examiner's report doesn't mention any pepper spray but says Palmer died of suffocation "due to foreign bodies" in her throat. Palmer's manner of death is listed as accidental. She was in Silverdale for a public intoxication charge.
CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Palmer's suit says the company doesn't properly train its employees or ensure that illegal drugs stay out of the facility.
Before they can give inmates their prescriptions, jail providers have to research how that medication will negatively react with "street" drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine that make it inside the jail, Ujwal Siddamreddy, a doctor with Silverdale, said in November 2017.
"Do we have a concern at Silverdale, then, that there may be interactions with those substances?" Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz asked at the time.
"Yes. Yes," Siddamreddy said.
Others expressed concern about Silverdale's operations, too. A 13-person grand jury toured the Hamilton County courts system, the downtown jail and Silverdale between September and December 2017 and recently released a report about its experience.
"While on duty, we were presented a case on a former CoreCivic employee, a corrections officer, smuggling contraband into Silverdale," the Feb. 12 report says. "She was terminated but during the case being read the officer stated that somehow CoreCivic overlooked her prior record on her background check. This seems to be a high case of negligence on CoreCivic's part."
The report said Silverdale was largely understaffed, in need of structural upgrades and neglecting medical concerns of inmates. Grand jurors said they were also concerned CoreCivic operates a for-profit system and makes money for every day an inmate sits in Silverdale.
"CoreCivic is not necessarily interested in seeing inmates return to society," the report says. "They want to keep them detained since the more beds that are full, the more money they make."
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, who took over daily management of Silverdale from the County Mayor's Office in November, said he has eight deputies at the facility to keep him up to speed on issues. Right now, he's working to reduce the roughly 1,600-inmate population in Hamilton County as he transitions everyone to Silverdale from the county jail downtown.
"Of course the contract's under CoreCivic, but I have eight people out there, and they've heard of what's going on," Hammond said. "So we're just now looking into it and making sure they're being held accountable. For each complaint, my internal affairs looks to determine if CoreCivic is following the rules."
In the meantime, Silverdale officials have said they're adjusting policies to meet the medical needs of inmates. During a series of hearings in fall 2017, Veronica Winters said providers were working to verify prescriptions faster so inmates can have their medication sooner.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.