'I had a purple elephant in my throat' Berkeley literature grad dies alone in Yuba County jail

Originally posted in the Sacramento Bee

Written by: Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091sstanton@sacbee.com

February 02, 2018 10:05 AM
Updated February 03, 2018 08:28 AM


 Courtesy attorney Lori Rifkin

Courtesy attorney Lori Rifkin

In the 77 days Bertram Hiscock spent in the Yuba County jail, he made three attempts at suicide, once trying to strangle himself, two other times by cramming his own feces into his mouth, court records say.

The UC Berkeley English literature graduate and former theology student talked to himself in different voices, drank his own urine, and muttered nonsensical statements about dinosaurs and frogs.

“I stripped my body down to tiny little feet, tendons and a piece of scalp,” he reportedly told officers once. “I had a purple elephant in my throat, but it’s out now,” he told another jail worker.

Despite his pleas that he needed to be taken to a hospital or given medication for his mental illness, Hiscock, 34, received only minimal treatment at the jail, even after a judge declared he was not mentally competent to stand trial and needed to be sent to a state mental institution, court records say.

Finally, inside a jail that has been under federal court oversight for nearly four decades – one that has portions so old and decrepit that some staffers have called it “the dungeon” – Hiscock killed himself on Jan. 29, 2017, locked in a rubber “safety” cell.

A press release sent out on Jan. 30 by the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, offered scant information, saying only that Hiscock died after having “a medical emergency.”

An autopsy later found his death resulted from choking on his own feces and urine as a result of “active psychosis” and “chronic bipolar affective disorder.”

“They put him in a horrific rubber room and basically just left him there,” said Lori Rifkin, an attorney suing the county and other defendants on behalf of Hiscock’s father and brother.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sacramento just after Christmas, claims negligence, wrongful death, and violations to Hiscock’s constitutional rights to medical and mental health care.

Hiscock’s younger brother, Vincent, said the family filed the lawsuit in part because they want more information from Yuba County and Sheriff Steve Durfor about his death, but also because of concerns over the long-standing problems inside the jail.

“I don’t want what happened to my brother to continue to happen to other people,” Vincent Hiscock said in a telephone interview from Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a lecturer in the English Department at Cornell University.

The Yuba County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying in an email that “we are unable to comment on any pending litigation.”

Despite that, the county has made it clear that it believes conditions at the jail have improved since 1979, when a federal court approved a consent decree requiring improvements in medical and mental health care treatment.

In 2013, the county asked the court to terminate the oversight, but that effort was rejected.

An appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also was rejected, and in October 2016 – just weeks before Hiscock was arrested and sent to the jail – lawyers for jail inmates filed a motion asking the court to force the county to improve conditions at the Marysville jail.

That legal fight was pending when Hiscock was arrested on Nov. 14, 2016.

Before his arrest, Hiscock appeared to have a bright future. He was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1982, but was raised largely in Northern California as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He graduated as valedictorian from Forest Lake Christian High School in Nevada City, where he played basketball and focused on music, including playing the cello.

His father was a fundraiser for Christian Record Services for the Blind, which provides free reading materials and programs for people who are legally blind; his mother was a church organist.

But he began to suffer from mental illness issues the summer after his 2004 graduation from Berkeley. Hiscock was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and was subject to hallucinations and odd behavior as a result of his illness, which was treated with the medication Abilify.

His arrest stemmed from a bipolar episode during which he placed his mother, a Yuba County resident, in a chokehold and began walking her down a road, the family lawsuit states.

“The police were called, and although his mother explained that Mr. Hiscock was mentally ill and in crisis and requested that he be taken to a hospital for psychiatric care, the police arrested Mr. Hiscock, charged him with kidnapping and false imprisonment and booked him into the Yuba County jail,” the lawsuit states.

Despite his illness, Hiscock previously had managed to function and live in various Bay Area communities while working as a teacher, child-care provider and in other jobs, according to his brother.

“There were long stretches of him being well,” Vincent Hiscock said, adding that he last spent time with his brother in late October 2016, just before the arrest.

“He was being exceptionally careful in wanting to stay well,” Vincent Hiscock said. “He was a joy to talk to. My brother was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, especially when he was doing well.”

Upon his arrest, however, Bertram Hiscock’s mental state began to degrade steadily, according to the lawsuit.

Hiscock told his jailers that he had been diagnosed as bipolar and used Abilify to manage his symptoms, but was not given medication until more than a month after he had been in custody. That medicine was not Abilify, but instead was one he was allergic to, the lawsuit states.

Hiscock was seen by counselors and a nurse in the first weeks, but was not evaluated by a psychiatrist or taken to a hospital, the lawsuit says.

By the time he had been in jail three weeks, he was being housed in the jail’s “administration segregation” unit, where he was kept 23 hours a day and had no access to natural light.

The lawsuit says records from the jail indicate that by Dec. 14 he was being held in a “medical holding cell with a window that looked only into a narrow hall illuminated by fluorescent lights.”

A jail guard later reported that Hiscock appeared depressed, “was crying, pushing his clothes and bedsheets out of his cell and rambling incoherently,” the lawsuit states.

That officer moved Hiscock to an isolated holding cell where he was to be checked on every 30 minutes.

But, because there were no mental health staff on duty at the jail that afternoon, officials arranged for him to speak by phone with an unlicensed “crisis counselor,” the lawsuit says.

“I think I’m having a mental crisis from talking to too many Michaels and watching too many Toms…,” Hiscock told the counselor, according to notes she took that are cited in the lawsuit. “Can you tell them to turn off the light at night so I can sleep? I feel like I should have been put in a firetruck and taken to the hospital. I didn’t do anything.”

The call provided no relief for Hiscock, who was kept locked in the holding cell without access to mental health treatment, the suit says, until he tried to kill himself the next day.

On Dec. 15, 2016, guards heard coughing noises coming from Hiscock’s cell and found “him lying on his back on the cell bench with both hands around his throat, attempting to strangle himself,” the lawsuit says.

Officials then stripped Hiscock of his clothes and moved him to a 7-foot by 7-foot padded cell that had no bed, toilet, sink or other amenities.

“Inmates are expected to urinate and defecate through a grate in the floor,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, inmates are forced to sleep, sit and eat on the same floor on which they must use the bathroom.”

Hiscock was kept there for more than a week without access to a shower or exercise, and without mental health treatment, the lawsuit says.

In the coming days, staffers reported that he was seen talking to himself and playing with his feces and spreading it on himself, the lawsuit says. “Instead of seeking immediate medical attention, the staff simply moved Mr. Hiscock to another safety cell,” the lawsuit says.

By Dec. 20, Hiscock made his second suicide attempt, stuffing feces into his mouth “in what appeared to be an attempt to choke himself,” the lawsuit says.

This prompted the first visit to Hiscock by a psychiatrist, who described him as “floridly psychotic” and prescribed Zyprexa Zydis, a medication to which he was allergic, the lawsuit says.

The next day the psychiatrist followed up and determined that the medication was working “because he was able to pour a cup of urine down the drain when told to do so,” the lawsuit says.

The prescription for the medication was ordered continued, but Hiscock began to refuse it, saying it wasn’t the right medicine and that the Zyprexa made him feel “like a zebra, my midsection is shredded cheese,” the lawsuit says.

On Dec. 29, Hiscock was seen by a second psychiatrist, who switched him back to Abilify, and by Jan. 4 the first psychiatrist evaluated him and scheduled a follow-up exam for 30 days later.

Before that took place, however, a Yuba County Superior Court found him mentally incompetent to stand trial and set a February hearing date to send him to state mental hospital.

Hiscock’s difficulties continued, with reports that he resisted guards at one point, was pepper sprayed another time, and asked a guard to “lightly break his knuckles and realign them.”

The end came Jan. 29, 2017.

Hiscock was reported to be seen “walking around his cell naked despite being provided a safety blanket, making bizarre statements, attempting to run out of the cell and smearing feces,” the lawsuit says.

He was heard banging on his cell door for 45 minutes around noon that day, but no one checked on him despite a requirement that he be seen every 15 minutes, the lawsuit says.

An officer found Hiscock inside his cell not breathing that afternoon, and an autopsy later determined he choked to death from “self consumption of subject’s own urine and feces in attempt to induce choking,” the lawsuit says.

Since his death, lawyers for the jail inmates and county authorities have been involved in talks aiming at settling the legal dispute over conditions in the jail.

A settlement conference held on Jan. 5 in federal court in Sacramento resulted in “significant progress,” according to a minute order filed in the case, and Gay Grunfeld, the inmates’ lead attorney, said she was hopeful about the talks.

“We have been involved in confidential settlement negotiations for many, many months, and we will continue to work hard to resolve the issues that exist in our case,” she said.

“Of course, I think everyone, including the county of Yuba, would agree that Bertram Hiscock’s death was tragic,” she added.

Stefanie Kaufman