TOPEKA, Kan. — A former inmate at a Kansas jail alleges in a federal lawsuit that deputies fired a flash grenade and nonlethal bullets at her while she was having a panic attack inside an isolation cell in 2019.
The lawsuit, filed last month by an attorney for 25-year-old Realiti Courson, alleges that deputies targeted her because she is Black. It also alleges that the Reno County sheriff's department persuaded the local prosecutor to charge Courson with three felonies after her attorney contacted the department about the incident.
The defendants are former Sheriff Randy Henderson; Shawn McClay, a captain at the jail; jail deputies Jake Harrison, Cody Blake and Kaitlynn Hazell; and the Reno County Commission.
A spokeswoman for the county did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday. Reno County Undersheriff Shawn McHaley told The Wichita Eagle the department would not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Courson was serving a 30-day sentence in August 2019 for violating her parole when she was falsely accused of bullying other inmates and going into other inmates’ cells without permission.
Later that night, deputies told her she was being taken to an isolation cell but gave differing reasons.
Courson, who had a history of anxiety and mental health challenges, hit and kicked her cell door, rang the buzzer and covered the surveillance camera twice while inside the cell. The lawsuit said she was having a panic attack, but deputies said she was throwing a "temper tantrum."
When Courson refused deputies' orders to “cuff up” inside the cell, Harrison fired a flashbang round into her cell, which gave off a “deafening sound” and a “blinding flash,” according to the lawsuit, causing Courson more fear and panic.
Harrison yelled at Courson, who couldn't hear him, then fired nonlethal ammunition, also known as rubber or plastic bullets, according to the lawsuit. Courson suffered numerous scars and bruises from the bullets and required surgery.
“The amount of force used in this case was grossly disproportionate to the need to apply force or maintain discipline,” the lawsuit says, noting that Courson was alone in a cell and posing no danger to anyone.
“Caged dogs are afforded better treatment than Realiti was given when she was shocked and shot while caged in a cell,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims the jail had a history of disregarding inmates’ rights and subjected them to time in isolation cells, beatings and the use of unnecessary physical restraints, but “The punishment of sound bombs and shotgun shootings is a punishment reserved for African American detainees.”
The deputies said the actions were taken because Courson was “noncompliant,” according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after the sheriff's department was contacted by Courson's attorney, the department sent an affidavit to the district attorney's office claiming Courson had threatened a deputy and another inmate and interfered with law enforcement.
She was acquitted in March.
“The defense argued that these charges were based on fiction designed to protect the Sheriff from this anticipated civil suit. The criminal court agreed,” the suit says.
It alleges Henderson, who retired as sheriff in December 2019, did nothing to stop the poor treatment of inmates and the lack of training and supervision provided by the former sheriff and McClay led to the “sadistic” assault on Courson.
Courson is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages but the lawsuit does not name a specific amount.