Family Sues Jail after Inmate's Overdose Death

By Keri Blakinger 11/29/17

The 23-year-old was reportedly in need of mental health care prior to his death.  

man in prison cell sitting on bed.

The family of a former inmate who died of a cocaine overdose in a New Orleans lock-up has launched a federal lawsuit accusing the parish jailers of ignoring his pleas for mental health treatment and creating an environment so unsupervised that inmates could openly do drugs in front of jail cameras. 

Colby Crawford died in February while waiting in jail after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity for allegedly hitting his sister with a wooden stick and punching his mother. 

The federal suit filed Monday in the Eastern District of Louisiana targets the Orleans Parish Sheriff and the jail’s health care contractor, along with a number of deputies and medical staff. 

“Mr. Crawford’s family hoped Colby would be kept safe while he was in custody,” the suit notes. “Sadly, they were wrong.”

Even though he had just been released from a psych hospital and was seeing ghosts and other hallucinations when he was booked into the Orleans Justice Center in 2016, Crawford didn’t meet the criteria for placement at the special psychiatric unit in Baton Rouge. Instead, he was prescribed medication, then sent to the psychiatric unit a few weeks later. 

During his two-month stay in Baton Rouge, he seemed to be showing improvement. But then—allegedly as punishment for a minor rules infraction—he was whisked back to OJC in August, and thrown into segregation shortly thereafter, the suit claims. After 20 days, he was released into general population. 

“Colby did not fare well in general population,” the suit alleges. “Records show that he ceased taking his prescribed medications on a consistent basis.” 

Again, he started seeing “spirits” and hearing voices—but the staff did not move him to the psychiatric tier, despite his requests. 

Instead, he stayed on the understaffed unit where inmates were able to get drugs—either through unscrupulous guards or lackadaisical searches, according to the suit. While the guards failed to monitor video feed of the unit, Crawford openly snorted lines of coke in clear view of the surveillance cameras all throughout the day of Feb. 22. 

That evening, just before 8 p.m., the 23-year-old collapsed and died of a cocaine overdose. 

“The failure culminating in Colby Crawford’s death—specifically, a failure to provide adequate mental health care, a failure to accommodate his known disability, a failure to supervise or monitor his tier, and a failure to prevent contraband from entering the institution—are all long-term problems at OPSO generally and in the OJC in particular,” the claim alleges.

Crawford had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to aggravated battery and domestic battery charges and was awaiting a competency evaluation, according to

The suit comes on the heels of a settlement in another jail lawsuit, after the son of a former inmate launched a wrongful-death claim over his father’s suicide, according to the New Orleans Advocate.

The legal claim also comes five years after a federal consent sparked by a class-action lawsuit over unconstitutional jail conditions.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.