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$2.2 million settlement for family of transgender woman who died in Georgia men's prison

The Justice Department announced an investigation in September into the treatment of gay and transgender inmates in Georgia's prison system.

Georgia's prison system agreed Monday to pay $2.2 million to the parents of a transgender inmate who died by suicide in her cell in 2017.

The settlement, first reported by CNN, came four years to the day after the inmate, Jenna Mitchell, 25, died after having been in a coma for two days before life support was withdrawn.

Mitchell's parents said in a lawsuit filed in 2019 that she had been approved for gender reassignment surgery but was being held at Valdosta State Prison, a men's prison.

Valdosta State Prison in Georgia.Google Maps

She had been in and out of solitary confinement at the prison for months. Before she hanged herself on Dec. 4, 2017, she had been housed in solitary confinement for more than two weeks, according to the lawsuit.

When Mitchell was placed in solitary confinement, the prison staff told her she was "being moved to the compound for transgender inmates," the suit says.

Mitchell's mother had called the prison on Dec. 2 after she received a letter from her daughter saying she was going to pull a “suicide stunt.” She took the threat seriously because Mitchell "had a history of mental illness, was suffering from gender identity issues, and had engaged in a pattern of suicidal and self-harming behavior," the suit says.

Mitchell's mother told the woman who answered the phone at the prison about the threat and asked that her daughter be put on suicide watch. The woman said that Mitchell was already "in medical" for attempting suicide and that she was "okay," the suit says.

The warden was made aware of the call, according to the lawsuit.

But Mitchell was placed back in solitary confinement, and on Dec. 4 she told a corrections officer that she was about to hang herself. The officer didn't wait with Mitchell or try to prevent her from hanging herself but rather left to alert others about the threat, the suit says.

Mitchell hanged herself while she was alone. The suit says it took too long to cut her down because officers couldn't find a cutting tool nearby and had to travel to and from the medical unit for scissors.

After Mitchell died, according to the suit, the supervisor of the corrections officer who left Mitchell alone "prepared a false incident report to cover up" the officer's conduct so he and other staff members would avoid discipline, an investigation or a lawsuit.

The warden approved the report, even though he knew it wasn't true, the suit says.

In 2016, the state Corrections Department was the subject of the first U.S. Justice Department investigation into the treatment of gay and transgender inmates.

And in September, the Justice Department announced that it was once more investigating Georgia prisons after an increase in homicides. The inquiry is focusing on inmates who harm one another, and it will continue to investigate cases of sexual violence against LGBTQ inmates carried out by fellow prisoners and prison staff members.

Mitchell's parents' attorney, David B. Shanies, said in a statement that the family is calling on the state attorney general and the Justice Department to investigate her death and hold wrongdoers accountable.

"There is no question that they should," he said. "Even a record-setting civil recovery cannot begin to repair the damage caused by this horrific event."

The Corrections Department didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Lawyers for the three prison employees named in the suit also didn't respond.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach a trained counselor at the Crisis Text Line. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional support networks.