Family of UC Berkeley alumnus sues Yuba County after jail suicide

Bertram Hiscock/Courtesy

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10/31/18: The language in this article has been updated.

Family members of UC Berkeley alumnus Bertram Hiscock filed a lawsuit against Yuba County after Hiscock died by suicide in the county’s custody Jan. 29, 2017.

According to the lawsuit, Hiscock, 34, died by choking on his own urine and feces. As first reported by The Sacramento Bee, Hiscock’s family members have filed claims that Hiscock’s rights under the First and 14th Amendments and California state law were violated in the events that led up to his death.

Hiscock had reportedly made two additional suicide attempts in jail prior to his death. Four days before he died, a court found Hiscock incompetent to stand trial and ordered him to be evaluated for transfer to a state psychiatric hospital. According to the lawsuit, however, Hiscock was not treated and was instead put into solitary confinement, where he was later found dead.

Born in Virginia, Hiscock was raised in Northern California, where he played basketball and graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. After receiving a degree in English literature from UC Berkeley in 2004, Hiscock moved on to attend the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley as a master’s student.

After graduating college, Hiscock was diagnosed with Type 1 bipolar disorder, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states that he had a history of psychotic episodes that spurred “hallucinations, agitation, and bizarre behavior,” which he was hospitalized for multiple times.

In November 2016, he allegedly put his mother in a chokehold and walked her down the side of a road during an episode. Police were called, and although his mother asked that he be given psychiatric care, Hiscock was charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment and placed in Yuba County Jail, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleged that the jail failed to initiate actions that would have prevented Hiscock’s death, such as providing sufficient mental health treatment and checking on him every 15 minutes.

Yuba County’s Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that it could not make statements about family litigation.

Hiscock’s brother, Vincent Hiscock, and his father, Sherrick Hiscock, filed the complaints against Yuba County, Sutter County, Yuba County Sheriff-Coroner Steven L. Durfor, Assistant Director of Health and Human Services at Sutter-Yuba Behavioral Health Tony Hobson and Yuba County Jail psychiatrist Joan Odom.

Sherrick Hiscock is suing individually for the alleged violation of his rights based on the loss of his relationship with his son.

“By failing to provide minimally adequate and necessary mental health treatment and subjecting Mr. Hiscock to isolated and anti-therapeutic conditions, Defendants severely exacerbated Mr. Hiscock’s mental illness, resulting in his unnecessary pain and suffering, and, ultimately, untimely death,” the lawsuit alleged.

This lawsuit against Yuba County is not the first of its kind. According to the lawsuit, in 1976, inmates filed a class-action lawsuit that alleged that the jail “subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment and violated rights secured by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” The inmates alleged that the jail provided inadequate staffing and medical and mental health care. In the 30 months before Hiscock was put in jail, there were at least 41 suicide attempts at Yuba County Jail, according to the lawsuit.

According to Joshua Nuni, the lawyer representing the Hiscock family, as a result of the 1976 lawsuit, a consent decree was implemented that gave the court oversight over the jail.

“This was someone who is clearly experiencing a severe mental health crisis, and the defendants here locked him in solitary confinement without treatment … knowing the safety risk that it posed to people in Mr. Hiscock’s position,” Nuni alleged. “This case was a tragedy that was caused by the jail system’s inability to recognize and deal with mental health issues.”

Contact Sabrina Dong and Henry Tolchard at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that court oversight over the jail was implemented after the Hiscock family’s lawsuit. In fact, it was implemented after the 1976 class-action inmate lawsuit.

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Joshua Nuni as saying the jail system has an inability to recognize and deal with mental issues. In fact, he said this regarding mental health issues.