Surveillance video shows how an autistic teen died after 10 terrifying hours in Ohio jail (2024)

Erin Glynn,Laura A. BischoffColumbus Dispatch

Surveillance video shows how an autistic teen died after 10 terrifying hours in Ohio jail (1)

Surveillance video shows how an autistic teen died after 10 terrifying hours in Ohio jail (2)

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Inside the Montgomery County Jail, guards taunted, belittled and threatened Isaiah Trammell, a 19-year-old who had autism spectrum disorder.

Deputies on the overnight shift told Trammell he was "ridiculous," "embarrassing" and "acting like an ass," surveillance video shows. Officers strapped Trammell into a restraint chair two separate times and threatened more time in the chair if he didn’t calm down.

BREAKING Activists call for investigation of Montgomery County Jail after newspapers' special report on death of Isaiah Trammell

Trammell couldn’t calm himself. He banged his head on the cell door, howled and repeatedly screamed “Let me out!”

Head-banging or other self-injury behaviors are more prevalent among people with autism. For Trammell, it was a dangerous coping mechanism that he continued during his brief time in jail.

“You remember how that restraint chair felt? Remember what the sergeant said? You're gonna go in for 10 hours next time you go in there. You want to do that?" one officer told Trammell, hours after he had been released from the chair the first time.

One officer said they couldn't use the restraint chair, prompting another to respond: “Just put the chair in front of his (expletive) cell so he stops. Give him a constant reminder.”

The restraint chair is supposed to be a last resort, only used in extreme circ*mstances and when the safety of the incarcerated person or others is in danger. Staff are supposed to use other interventions first, such as offering medication.

Trammell begged for his medications, a phone call and a blanket. No one heeded his pleas.

Less than 10 hours after entering jail, Dayton paramedics loaded Trammell into an ambulance.

He died three days later. The coroner ruled it a suicide − a ruling Trammell's mother wants changed.

Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said Trammell shouldn’t have been in jail, given his mental health issues.

Trammell's case isn't an outlier. A USA TODAY Network Ohio investigation found that most of the 16,000 people in Ohio jails each day suffer from mental illness.

Neighbor's call led to his arrest

Trammell was proud that he had his own place at 19, said his mother, Brandy Abner. It was his first time living by himself. It was close to his job at Walmart and near his grandmother’s home.

One night, inside his Lebanon apartment, Trammell grew anxious about a job interview scheduled for the next day. He “raged” – yelling on the phone with his uncle, banging his head – as a coping mechanism. In previous rages, his family called for help and Trammell stayed in the hospital for a few days.

This time his neighbor called the cops.

Lebanon police officers arrived at his apartment around 12:30 a.m. on March 13, 2023. While checking on Trammell, police found an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Neither Trammell or his family knew the warrant existed.

It was a misdemeanor domestic violence warrant from an incident a year before. Abner said Trammell was raging and her sister and her husband called the police.

“Like we always call when he begins to rage,” Abner said. “It's a mental health call, it's not an ‘arrest me’ call.”

Abner picked up her son from Miami Valley Hospital after that incident. She said a nurse there told her the police hadn’t left any paperwork so everything must be okay. Abner said she double-checked by calling the courthouse the next day and was told there was nothing on Trammell. He applied for two jobs after the incident without anyone mentioning a warrant.

Instead of taking Trammell to a hospital in March 2023, Lebanon police officers transferred Trammell into the custody of the Montgomery County sheriff's deputies. They decided to take him to jail, where the conditions would hit on nearly every trigger he had until he was unable to calm down.

Suicide watch in a concrete cell

Officers booked Trammell in jail around 1 a.m. He told the jail's medical staff he had ADHD and autism and said, “I don’t want to live.”

Jailers put Trammell on suicide watch. In Ohio, that means you are supposed to be strip-searched, given a suicide-resistant gown, blanket and mattress and put in a safe cell by yourself.

Officers gave Trammell the gown but not a blanket or mattress.

“He hated his body to be exposed and he kept telling them. He hated to be confined. Absolutely that would trigger him," Abner said of her son.

Trammell started banging his head in the jail before he was booked and continued banging throughout the night. Head-banging was one of Trammell’s stims, the self-soothing behaviors people with autism turn to, such as flapping their hands or rocking.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that affects an estimated 2% of adults in the U.S. Symptoms can include hypersensitivity to lights and sounds, repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social cues.

“Everybody knows somebody that's autistic," Abner said.

People with autism can struggle with the shouting, chaos and disruptions in a jail. They can be slow to respond to their name or verbal requests and unable to predict or understand other people's actions, which law enforcement officers may interpret as resistance.

When Trammell banged his head as a kid, his mother would wrap her arms around him and try to put something between him and any hard surfaces.

“The more they try to control this stuff the more irritated they get,” Abner said.

Trammell told deputies head-banging was “the only way I know to get rid of the crazy in my head.”

Restrained with wrists, ankles and chest bound to a chair

At 4:15 a.m., officers said Trammell banged his head against his cell door window so forcefully that his forehead began to swell. Guards decided to put him into a restraint chair for the first time, strapping down his chest, wrists and ankles for “his own protection from self-harm.”

Trammell, like many people with autism, hated to be restricted. His mother said he hated even being in a car seat when he was little.

Trammell calmed down after one hour in the restraint chair and told an officer he had no intention of harming himself, according to the investigation report.

Deputies kept Trammell in the chair for another hour, which is against Ohio standards for restraints.

Officers released Trammell and returned him to his cell, where he paced and banged on the door with his fist. After nearly three hours, Trammell asked a sergeant for a mat, blanket and a phone call. The sergeant refused.

Half an hour later, Trammell went to video court and learned he would not get out of jail any time soon. He spiraled out of control. The security camera mounted in the corner of the holding cell captured Trammell pacing, rocking, kicking and crying.

“Let me out!” he shouted over and over.

A nurse came over to speak with him but when Trammell continued shouting, she said “Okay, I'm done” and walked away.

'Please, I'm in pain'

Trammell screamed and asked repeatedly to call his family. Guards watched as he banged his head against the cell door and collapsed on the floor.

Deputies started walking toward Trammell’s cell as he screamed "No, please no!"

“You should have thought, bro. Turn around! Turn around! I said so. Turn around. Lay on your stomach!" a deputy said to him from the other side of the cell door.

Inside, Trammell flopped onto the concrete floor. Then he leaped up and slammed the right side of his head – four rapid blows – against the cinder block wall, knocking himself out for a few seconds.

Trammell, who hated to be touched by strangers, found himself pinned face down on the ground by five officers. An officer pinned him back into the restraint chair with his knee as other officers strapped him in again.

“Please, let's talk about this," Trammell cried. A deputy told him “No, there’s no talking.”

Trammell asked for his clothes and a phone call. He asked the deputies to listen to him and how long he would be in the restraint chair.

Ohio policy states jail staff should never use restraints for punishment or the staff's convenience. Staff should calmly explain what they're doing and why.

Deputies repeatedly told Trammell to cooperate or they would force him to.

"Please, please, please. I'm shaking," Trammell pleaded as they photographed a golf ball-sized lump on his forehead. "Please, I'm in pain."

Abner said she had never seen her son look as afraid as he did in the surveillance video.

Deputies wheeled Trammell, strapped to the chair, into a separate cell. He banged his head against the back of the restraint chair and continued screaming and tensing. Even once he quieted, Trammell sucked air in and out of his lungs so loudly it could be heard on the surveillance camera.

"You can see his pupils were two different sizes. They should have known that something bad was going to happen," Abner said.

Trammell was unconscious by the time he was taken to the hospital. He died three days later, leaving behind his parents, six siblings and his dog, Bruce. His mother didn't know Trammell had been in jail until he was in the hospital.

'Appropriate care'

Teresa Russell, director of criminal justice outreach for the sheriff's office, said all jail staff and contract employees go through "very, very stringent training" focused on recognizing the signs and symptoms of specific mental health diagnoses and developmental disabilities.

Streck, the county sheriff, said everything seemed fine when Trammell first came into the jail.

"He began banging − once again, I don't like being on the record for this because my attorneys don't want −but as soon as he started banging his head, he was taken, secured, calmed down, (let) out, (put) back in his cell (with) people watching him," Streck said. "And out of the blue, he does the same thing."

He added, "All of that happened within seconds. So, staff was there. Staff quickly figured out that he had an issue."

The sheriff's "within seconds" version is contradicted by his investigator's report. Trammell had been banging his head since before he was booked in the jail and throughout the nearly 10 hours he spent inside, according to Streck's investigators.

The investigators determined the jail staff did nothing wrong and provided Trammell with appropriate care.

Abner, who is studying to be a nurse, is considering a lawsuit and said she just wants the deputies to do their jobs.

“If I go to work and I don't do my job not only am I fired, I lose my license and I could be looking at jail time for neglect,” she said.

She also doesn't believe jail administrators are taking care of their officers by making sure they get adequate rest and mental health care.

“These people have become jaded and they've become hard," she said. "It's time to find a new job because you're no longer capable of serving and protecting.”

Abner said her other children are now afraid of the police. She said recently when her son was in the car, she was speeding to get around cars before she missed her exit.

"My 10-year-old freaked out. He was like you're gonna get pulled over and go to jail and you're not gonna come out," she said.

An eclipse, a birthday and a memorial

Abner said her son taught her to be strong.

“His whole life he was treated differently from people. People are annoyed by him. People didn’t like him because he was different. But he kept going,” she said.

Trammell was a sports fanatic and could list off stats for any sport, his mother said, but his favorite was wrestling. He had WrestleMania birthday parties every year and watched the matches with his younger brother, Camden.

Camden still pays homage to that tradition, even after Trammell’s death. He sets up a chair and a drink for Isaiah during WrestleMania while he watches the matches with his dad, Chris Abner.

Abner said Trammell was also passionate about civil rights and once wrote a proposal for a law that would pay for therapy and mental health support for police officers.

Trammell would’ve turned 21 on April 8, the day that the solar eclipse captivated millions of Ohioans.

For Abner and her two other children, it was a day of sorrow, grief and profound loss.

They marked the day and the event by spreading some of Trammell’s ashes in a nature preserve near where he attended middle school. Trammell loved being outside and dreamed of being a park ranger so the setting seemed appropriate, his mom thought.

Abner, husband Chris, and children Camden and Crosley spread out a blanket in a clearing and walked up to a bridge over a stream while they shared memories of Trammell.

The shadow and light through the trees turned into little crescents and the sky grew dimmer. Chris asked the kids to go back to the clearing to give their mom a moment.

Just before the moon totally blocked the sun, Abner knelt, sobbing, and let go of her oldest child.

Erin Glynn and Laura Bischoff are reporters for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

Surveillance video shows how an autistic teen died after 10 terrifying hours in Ohio jail (2024)


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