‘It hurts. It itches. It’s painful’: Woman loses eye after being tased by deputies
Case represents challenges for police, mentally ill for those incarcerated in Georgia’s county jails
BUTTS COUNTY, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A woman being held in a middle Georgia jail is now blind in her right eye after being tased. The deputy responsible for it, isn’t facing criminal charges, because police allege Ashanti Walls lunged at them.
Walls’ attorney, however, is arguing his client’s mental health medication was withheld and then was punished for having a psychotic episode.
The case represents the myriad challenges law enforcement personnel face when dealing with the mentally ill in Georgia’s prisons.
The incident happened on Sept. 10, 2021; Walls had been in the Butts County jail for five days already. She had also been tased twice before, according to jail records. Incident reports and Walls’ medical file revealed jail staff described aggression, delusions and yelling. Staff also said Walls urinated on herself and defecated in her cell.
Walls, 58, has been diagnosed as bipolar schizophrenic, according to her medical records, but despite the incidents while she was in the Butts County jail, she was not offered medication over those five days. In fact, her medical file shows she only received medication for her mental illness after the loss of her eye.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigated the incident and interviewed the sergeant who tased Walls in the eye; Atlanta News First Investigates obtained the video of the interview.
The third tasing happened as jail staff were entering Walls’ cell to serve a meal. In the video interview, the sergeant said Walls was in a “crouched down” position when she entered Walls’ cell and “I couldn’t see her.”
“As soon as the door popped ... [Walls] just forcefully pushed it open,” the sergeant said.
The sergeant told state investigators her body camera malfunctioned, so it did not record the moments leading up to the incident or the tasing itself, only the scene after. Jail surveillance obtained by Atlanta News First investigates only shows one angle and has no audio.
The sergeant said she “already had my taser out, prepared ... based on [Walls’ history].
“Something was wrong, mentally,” the segreant said.
On Sept. 12, 2021, according to records, a Grady Memorial Hospital doctor requested Walls take Zyprexa once a day, among other medications. Zyprexa is the brand name for Olanzapine, used to treat mental health disorders.
“Without the medication, [being] confined in a space only worsens the conditions,” said Aaron Durden, Walls’ attorney.
According to Butts County Sheriff’s office policy, after someone is arrested and arrives at the jail, inmates should be classified “to enhance safety and humane treatment,” using “behavioral patterns … and any special needs.” The classification, which is a measure to minimize risks, is done when staff complete an objective classification form.
However, when Atlanta News First Investigates asked for records to determine if jail staff completed that process for Walls, the agency said there were no records.
“What’s disturbing is why have a policy if you’re not going to follow it,” Durden said.
Instead of following and implementing protocols for responding to inmates with symptoms associated with psychotic episodes, Durden said the mentally ill are met with the punishment of a prong. “So, it seems as if protocol was walk in [and] be ready to tase her, let’s just go with that,” he said.
The GBI asked about the type of force used as well.
“What would be a circumstance you would use pepper spray instead of a taser,” the GBI asked the sergeant in the interview.
“I’m not really sure,” the sergeant said. “In my opinion, I don’t think pepper spray would have been successful due to her being so violent already and in an altered mental state.”
“I was a mess ... a nervous wreck,” the sergeant said. “I would never mean to do that to anyone. It really hit me hard.”
Walls feels differently. “It was point and shoot,” she said. “It hurts. It itches. It’s painful. There’s no eyeball there at all.”
According to her medical records, Walls underwent an emergency surgery called enucleation, the removal of the eye globe.
“When I cry, it burns,” Walls said. “And it’s just very uncomfortable so I try not to cry.”
Jonathan Adams, who serves as district attorney for the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, is not filing criminal changes against the sergeant.
“After careful review of the case I believe the Butts County Sheriff’s Office acted lawfully under the applicable statues,” Adams, whose circuit includes Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties, wrote in a letter.
Adams’ decision came after the GBI conducted its investigation to determine criminal wrongdoing.
Atlanta News First has been attempting to contact the Butts County Sheriff’s Office for comment on this incident for several months, to no avail. However, after this story first aired during our 4 p.m. newscast on Oct. 4, a spokesperson for the office contacted Atlanta News First and apologized for the delay. The spokesperson also confirmed Butts County Sheriff Gary Long is now available for an interview.
At the core, experts argue types of use of force is all about training.
“When I do my training courses, I ask what’s the best way to prevent tragedies. I write on the blackboard or PowerPoint, I.T.T.S.,” said Dr. Laurence Miller, a nationally recognized clinical and forensic psychologist. “That stands for ‘It’s the training, stupid.’ “People do what they’re trained to do.”
Miller is also a use-of-force expert, and said law enforcement personnel - particularly those assigned to jails - should have more training on force without a weapon.
“You can have several personnel, there or four or five personnel who can physically but safely, restrain an inmate,” he said.
However, he maintains the best line of defense is evaluation and treatment. “If this lady had been having her psychotic symptoms controlled in a medical way, she probably wouldn’t have been in that situation to have gotten out of control, to have been in that fearful anger state to begin with,” Miller said.
Miller noted even when medication is offered, staff cannot force inmates to take it in most cases.
In June 2022, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council released its state study, reporting on identifying predictors of mental illness in Georgia’s county jails. The study found mentally ill people are represented in county jails at twice the rate they are in the general population.
Additionally, the average stay for mentally ill is roughly double the average stay of those without mental illness.
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