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‘She should not have been treated as a bad person’: Father of deceased Deschutes County Jail inmate files federal lawsuit

(Update: Adding video and comment from father, Sheriff's Office)

Alleges negligence, wrongful death, seeks new jail policies

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The father of a 22-year-old Deschutes County Jail inmate who died of suicide while in withdrawal from fentanyl a year ago has filed a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff's office, Sheriff Shane Nelson and other jail officials, alleging they failed to take proper steps to prevent her death.

The 22-page lawsuit, filed Feb. 9, accuses the sheriff's office of "negligence, gross negligence, and deliberate indifference to Kendra's serious medical condition and conditions of confinement" by jail staff.

According to the lawsuit. "These Defendants knew that KENDRA was (1) in the need of medical care; (2) suicidal; (3) in the midst of a mental health crisis; and/or (3) was housed in unconstitutional conditions of confinement. In spite of this knowledge, these Defendants took no steps to prevent serious injury and/or death to KENDRA. These Defendants were negligent; deliberately indifferent; and/or acted in furtherance of an official and/or de facto policy or procedure of deliberate indifference."

Kent Sawyer and his daughter, Kendra, had been living in Puerto Rico when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so they moved to Boise, were Kendra worked as a baker at their local Albertsons. After some time, Kendra wanted to move back to her home of 10 years, Bend, while Kent went to live in New Mexico with his son, who was stationed their in the Air Force.

"Kendra and I and her brother Troy, we lived there for a decade in Bend, Oregon. It's an absolutely beautiful place," said Kent. "I have been in contact with a few of the deputies, and I do respect the sheriff's office there."

"Kendra went to Bend, Oregon," he said. "Apparently during the last year, she met some people and ended up doing some drugs, which is unlike I raised her. The whole time we were in Puerto Rico and in Idaho, there were no issues. So I don't know what happened in between that time."

Kendra Sawyer was placed on probation with Deschutes County Adult Parole and Probation Office on Jan. 13, 2023. That meant she had to meet with a parole officer to serve her probation. That appointment was scheduled for Jan. 24.

But she missed the appointment, and the Adult Parole and Probation Office tried to reach out again on Jan. 26. They got no response, so the next day, "it was recommended to put out a search warrant for Kendra," the lawsuit says.

Early on Feb. 12, 2023, Sawyer was arrested after Bend Police were notified of a woman stranded near an Albertson’s, the lawsuit states. They arrived at the scene, ran her name and discovered that she had an outstanding warrant from Deschutes County, so they arrested Kendra and took her to the jail, according to the lawsuit.

When she arrived at the jail, Sawyer went through a pre-booking interview which, according to the lawsuit did not include a suicide risk assessment. Kendra did, however, report that "she would withdrawal [sic] from Fentanyl," according to the lawsuit.

She was assigned to a single-person cell in the detox unit of the jail. "Here, she faced the pain of withdrawing from fentanyl," the lawsuit says. It says she went through a "Detox Check in" with one if the defendants, who, according to the lawsuit, was not medically trained. Despite expressing concern that she was unwell and did "not feel good," Kendra was left in her cell to withdraw, with no referral to to a mental health or medical provider, the father's lawsuit alleges.

Below is the lawsuit's chronological timeline of what Kendra went through on her final day from the filed lawsuit:

  • "At 9:15 a.m. on February 13, 2023, Kendra's mother came to the Jail with a bag of Fentanyl pills that she had found in Kendra's bedroom, telling Defendant what the County already knew: that Kendra would likely be withdrawing from opioids. In response, and in compliance with Deschutes County’s policies, customs, and established practices, defendants did nothing."
  • "In a 2:06 p.m. call to her mother, Kendra mentioned that her conditions of confinement were making her 'loony.'"
  • "In a 2:26 p.m. call to her father, Kendra stated, 'the nurse is not giving me any medication to help me and I have already told her over and over how bad my withdrawals are getting and she still won’t help me.'"
  • "In a 3:24 p.m. call to her mother, Kendra said that she “need[s] to find a will to live,” mentioned being hurt 'by her friend committing suicide,' and expressed sadness about 'her boyfriend being arrested.'"
  • "At 6:11 p.m., Kendra was allowed to leave her room to mop and sweep the floors. Kendra used a towel to dry off the shower, then was allowed to take the towel into her cell."
  • "At 7:50 p.m., Defendant observed Kendra in her cell during a “supplies pass.” Defendant knew that Kendra was going through severe withdrawals. Kendra told Defendant that she 'was having trouble because of her withdrawal from Fentanyl' and 'having trouble being by herself in her cell for 23 hours a day.' Because it was not required by Deschutes County training, policy, custom, or established practice, Kendra was not referred to a mental health or medical provider. Defendant did nothing in response to this information form an obviously deteriorating inmate."
  • "At 8:30 p.m.—40 minutes after Defendant interaction with Kendra— Kendra was found hanging from a towel that she had been allowed to tie onto an easily accessible tie-off point on her bed."
  • "For 40 minutes, between the hours of 7:50 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Kendra was on her own—no safety checks, no visual observations, and no custodial care whatsoever."

Two years prior to the woman's death, a similar incident occurred at the jail. According to the lawsuit, "a 31-year-old detoxing inmate hanged himself in a single-cell, using a towel, tied to the same type of bunk bed. He was on the same 23-hour lockdown schedule, with the same cell check requirements."

Kendra's father, Kent Sawyer, told NewsChannel 21, "I was hoping that policies would be put in place for people who are addicted to drugs can get some medications twice a day, maybe cut the dose in half or in 24-hour periods, but something to lessen the impact the physical body is responding to the withdraws."

"Through reviewing the past suicides with quite a few suicides at Deschutes County Jail, the courts in Oregon have stated that I cannot change any policies because it will not affect or change how Kendra was feeling that day or what happened to Kendra," Sawyer told us. "So this just turns into me getting some cash to start some kind of fund, to help the movement that is going on now throughout the nation to change policies, to get medical help."

"She should not have been treated as a bad person," Kent Sawyer said. "She should have been treated in more of medical setting, and that is now my goal: to end the unnecessary deaths and the cruelness of how people are treated."

In 2014, there was a similar situation at the county jail that resulted in policy changes. In regard to this, Kent Sawyer said, "There are policies in place, especially since in 2014, I guess the inmate there committed suicide and they changed some policies after it went through court.

According to the lawsuit, other instances of suicide at Deschutes County Jail have happened in December of 2021, February 2022, December 2022, March 2018, May 2015 and in December 2014. 

"I would just hope that they followed those policies, and I hope that some more policies can be put in place, as far as medically treating people that are addicted. So most of the time, from what I understand, they haven't been following the new policies enacted from the 2014 incident."

"That hurts," he said, "because had they followed some policies, according to the documents, she would still be alive, most likely."

While speaking on the program in 2023, Corrections Division Commander Captain Shults said, “Instead of starting with therapy and behavioral health, and then drug assist, it starts with medication first, getting them stabilized and using that medication throughout their course of therapy.”

Deschutes County Legal Counsel David Doyle said in a statement to NewsChannel 21: “The DCAJ has policies that address medical issues and mental illness.  The County does not agree with allegations in the complaint and intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

The county jail started a program in 2023 called the Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, where they use Suboxone, a medication to treat opioid drugs and withdrawals.

Despite starting this program before Kendra Sawyer’s death, the lawsuit claims the jail has inadequate suicide prevention policy, failed to implement half-hourly rounds in the medical area, and failed to assess her psychological state and withdrawal scale.

Article Topic Follows: Crime And Courts

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Matthew Draxton

Matthew Draxton is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Matthew here.


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