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Arizona woman drank from a toilet when jail shut off water to her cell for days

Tamara Barnicoat
Posted at 9:17 AM, Feb 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-14 14:42:03-05

After the Gila County Jail cut off water to her cell for at least two days, an Arizona woman with mental illness said she had to drink water out of her cell's toilet bowl.

In an exclusive interview with the ABC15 Investigators, Tamara Barnicoat described the water deprivation and other possible civil rights violations during her 27 days inside the Gila County Jail.

"I kept saying, 'I am American,'" she said. "You can't treat me like this."

Barnicoat, a 62-year-old grandma lives with her three small dogs in a modest house in Miami, about 80 miles east of the Valley.

Mental health paperwork showed Barnicoat was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She had a history of psychosis, and she was off her medication when she was arrested on October 10.

According to the Globe police report, Barnicoat threw water on a car wash employee claiming it was "poisoned." She also refused to leave the business. Officers booked her into the Gila County Jail for assault, disorderly conduct, and criminal trespassing.

Barnicoat was having a mental health crisis, and she was placed alone in an observation cell near the jail's booking office.

"I wasn't violent or anything," Barnicoat said. "I just thought I saw aliens and stuff and spaceships."

Barnicoat received sack lunches, with a juice, through a hatch in her door, but she believed the meals were crawling with bugs. "So I was taking my lunch and throwing it in the toilet," Barnicoat said.

Major Justin Solberg, who serves as the jail's commander, noticed her bizarre behavior. "Standing over her toilet, she was - for lack of a better term - looking like she was doing some form of ritual in the cell," Solberg said.

According to the sheriff's office, detention Sgt. Dustin Burdess decided to turn off the water supply to Barnicoat's cell. It's called dry celling, and it's sometimes used to prevent inmates from playing in the water or flooding their cells.

"Our protocol requires, when there are dry cells, that we start a log," Solberg said. "Every two hours, we're required to turn on the water and the toilet, so they could use the restroom, as well as get a drink."

None of that happened for days. The sheriff's office said it was two days. Barnicoat believes it was three. Unable to effectively advocate for herself due to her mental state, she said she asked for water, but got none. Barnicoat knew there was some water still in the toilet bowl, so she removed the sack lunches and decided she'd have to drink from it.

"At the time, I thought it was really gross, but I didn't know what else to do," Barnicoat said.

On Barnicoat's fourth day in jail, an "overpowering odor of urine from the cell" caught a detention officer's attention, according to an incident report obtained by the ABC15 Investigators though a public records request. Barnicoat had been urinating on the floor, so she could drink out of the toilet.

The report also described Barnicoat's condition, saying she was "very confused" and "her lips were very dry, and cracked." She was wearing nothing except a tank top. She had no mattress, and the cell's toilet was "empty and dry."

"I wouldn't even treat my dogs like that," Barnicoat said.

Major Solberg does not dispute Barnicoat's story of drinking the toilet water. He did disagree with some details in his staff's incident report. He said Barnicoat had pants and a mattress in the cell. He also said she did have something to drink. He explained she was given a juice drink in every sack lunch, which was served three times a day.

However, both Solberg and the Gila County sheriff admitted Barnicoat received cruel and unusual punishment. Such punishment is unconstitutional, outlawed by the 8th amendment.

"Absolutely, we wish we would have known earlier, and then it wouldn't have happened," Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd said.

Sheriff Shepherd said he did demote Sgt. Dustin Burdess, who shut off Barnicoat's water, failed to start a log, or even pass along a message to the next shift. Burdess had been reprimanded one month before for a similar error. An internal jail email said Burdess had "ongoing issues" of "failing to start suicide and dry cell logs." Burdess still works at the jail as a detention officer.

Burdess told ABC15 he saw Barnicoat throwing water around her cell. He said he was afraid she'd slip, so he shut off the water supply. Burdess also said he passed along the information to the next shift before he left that day.

"If you fired everybody for every infraction there wouldn't be too many people working," Sheriff Shepherd said. "It's difficult to find people to work, so you've got to gauge all of these things together where you still have to have a functioning office at the end of the day."

Sheriff administrators say they reminded all staff about dry cell procedures, and they are considering changes to make to the logging system in order to decrease errors and increase accountability. They are also working with a coalition on the best mental health practices in the justice system.

Barnicoat was placed in a women's dorm cell for the remainder of her 27-day stay in the Gila County Jail. During that time, she faced other struggles. She said she never received any psychiatric medication and her court date kept being pushed back. Unable to see a judge or make bail, Barnicoat grew depressed, and fashioned strips of her blanket into a rope.

"It was a long piece of rope, and there's holes in the bunk beds," Barnicoat said. "I was gonna put the rope in through that and hang myself." Luckily, she was released the same day, November 6.

During her hearing with a justice of the peace, he determined prosecutors did not follow up after Barnicoat's arrest by filing criminal charges. He dismissed the case and told the jail to let her out.