Jailhouse Blues

Arrested for nothing, Amanda Jessup spiraled out of control in county lockup.

A bouncing basketball triggered Amanda Jessup's descent into hell. On March 31, 2004, the carefree and casual 18-year-old and a 22-year-old friend, Karl Casebeer, watched television and smoked cigarettes at the young man's South Miami home. Then they went outside and chatted while he bounced a ball in his driveway and the street.

About 2:45 a.m., South Miami Police Officer Maximilian Valdes pulled up, his patrol car's lights flashing. There had been a report of a stolen basketball, he said, and he began asking Casebeer questions.

Amanda intervened. Her friend had not stolen a ball, she said. "This is ridiculous," she added before urging her buddy not to reply.

The cop ordered Amanda to step back. She refused and also declined to give her name.

After cuffing Amanda for resisting without violence, Valdes headed for the police station. On the way, Amanda twisted her hands to the front, opened the Plexiglas panel, and demanded the cop's cell phone.

"I thought I was going to Hell," she would say later in court papers. "I was in the back of the car, praying. I, like, snapped... I started just not, like, really knowing what was going on."

In the cop shop's parking lot, Valdes tried to pull Amanda out of the car. But she held onto a seat belt and wouldn't budge. A female officer attempted to help, but the two couldn't pull her away. So Valdes pepper-sprayed the teenager, whose only previous brush with the law was an arrest for tobacco possession a couple of years before. She began to sob.

Valdes then learned he couldn't take Amanda to the county jail because it was on lockdown. So she was transported to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Northwest Miami-Dade. She was booked around 9 a.m., strip-searched, and put in a cell. Police added a charge of resisting with violence.

Soon, Amanda, an upper-middle-class girl who had no history of mental illness, took off her clothes and began chanting and praying. About 11:30 a.m., a social worker ordered her placed on suicide watch. She was then transferred to the Women's Detention Center on NW Seventh Avenue at 14th Street.

There, Amanda smeared her menstrual blood in the form of a cross on a window. She also rubbed her feces across the cell, bathed herself with toilet water, and repeatedly banged her head against a wall. At one point, she wrote, "Help me," in her own blood.

Jail personnel ignored her, according to a federal lawsuit filed on her behalf in June 2008. They also paid no mind to pleas from other inmates to help Amanda. The lawsuit against Miami-Dade County, South Miami, two police officers, and two jail guards charges false arrest, excessive force, battery, negligence, deliberate indifference, and infliction of emotional harm.

Since the episode, Amanda has not been able to hold a steady job because, she told attorneys, she is overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, and stress for which she has been hospitalized and prescribed antidepressants. "I can't earn a living," she says.

"Amanda nearly died as a result of the actions of all the parties in this disaster waiting to happen," says John de Leon, one of Amanda's attorneys and vice president of the Miami chapter of the ACLU. "The guards did nothing to try to help Amanda. But for the actions of the parties here, Amanda's life would not have been put in danger. Her life has been forever devastated."

Until the ordeal, Amanda was simply an angst-ridden teenager struggling to find her identity. She had problems, but none of the magnitude that followed. Raised by her mother, Elizabeth Jordan, she was a below-average student at Miami Palmetto Senior High, where she received Cs in most classes and an F in math. The school suspended her once for violating the dress code and smoking. After a teacher recommended she attend a smaller school, Amanda transferred to Ace Academy in Coral Gables, where her mother was a teacher. She did well but left after an arrest for tobacco possession. She transferred to the School of Applied Technology in Allapattah and then dropped out.

She experimented with marijuana and cocaine, but in many ways was a typical young woman, court records show. Just before the arrest, she wrote a note to her mom, apologizing for leaving the house without explanation.

After her arrest and transfer to the women's detention center, Amanda continued to behave for five hours in ways that should have caused the jail staff to respond, her lawyers say. But she received no treatment.

"She just spiraled out of control from sitting there in the middle of this drama," Jordan says. "No matter what, they had a responsibility in that situation, other than sitting there laughing, mocking, and letting somebody deteriorate inside a cell."

About 7:30 p.m., Angela Price, an inmate in an adjacent cell, saw Amanda bang her head against the wall six times, and alerted guards. Price later told investigators a guard yelled back, "She is just crazy." By then, Amanda was bleeding from the nose, mouth, and an ear, according to her lawsuit. About 12 minutes later, two nurses conducting rounds noticed Amanda had hurt herself. Guards handcuffed and shackled Amanda.

After a nurse noted a softball-size bump on her head, Amanda was sent to Cedars Medical Center. "It's not that I wanted to kill myself," she would say later. "I had this thought in my head, it's so ridiculous, that I was spelling out my mother's name in my head, and it's like I had no control over my brain and it was just spelling, it just kept throwing out the letters, and I thought that the Devil was going to get her now.

"So I banged my head against the wall so I would stop the spelling. The next thing I remember, I was in a wheelchair, and then I was in a hospital bed."

Six days later, after Jordan contacted de Leon, he filed a complaint with the corrections department alleging improper treatment. Amanda was released from the county system April 14, and a week later, while she was still hospitalized, authorities dismissed the charges.

In a report that November, corrections officials exonerated the guards of any wrongdoing. They claimed Amanda appeared to be under the influence of an unknown substance and even asserted she "bears some responsibility for injuring herself."

Corrections spokeswoman Janelle Hall and Assistant County Attorney Marlon Moffett declined to comment. In court documents, City of South Miami attorneys also claim that what happened to Amanda was a result of her own conduct.

Since then, Amanda has been repeatedly hospitalized. Over the past five years, she has been unable to work steadily, having repeatedly lost retail and restaurant jobs because of what she calls "psychotic breaks." Her attorneys believe the severe head trauma sparked a series of life-changing events and affected her behavior.

In court documents, Amanda said she cries a lot, freaks out at sirens, and is frequently overcome by anxiety and fear.

"Fear about my soul, basically," she says. "It's like the whole world is some conspiracy."

Amanda's lawsuit might signal trouble ahead for the Miami-Dade Corrections Department, which in 2004 housed thousands of people, many of whom were either mentally ill or suffering a mental health crisis. According to a Miami-Dade grand jury report issued several months after Amanda's arrest, the system was ill-prepared to treat and process such inmates. Corrections officers charged with providing security for the mentally ill were "not given any training for dealing with this segment of the inmate population," the grand jury said.

The grand jury also concluded that Miami-Dade's pretrial detention center and its cells were "cold and stark" and "less than ideal for treating persons suffering from mental illness" — an environment that could worsen an inmate's condition.

Though the grand jury's report led Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez to establish a mental health task force that has brought about some change, the county is still trying to fully implement its recommendations, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the county jail.

The county now trains guards to recognize when inmates are trying to harm themselves or attempt suicide, but it's too late for Amanda. When a reporter recently visited her family's comfortable wooded home in South Miami, she sat silently in a wheelchair, recovering from a recent fall.

"My daughter is disabled," Jordan says. "I'm not going to give up on her, and I just am praying that she can have a normal life. She's going to need care for the rest of her life."

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