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Former Oklahoma detainee sues jail after claims she suffered severe facial burns

Darrin Klimek/Getty Images

(OKLAHOMA CITY) — An Oklahoma woman has filed a federal lawsuit alleging she suffered severe facial burns while in custody at the Oklahoma County Detention Center in 2021.

Chandra Graham alleges she was “subjected to inhuman conditions of confinement in the suicide watch wing” at the Oklahoma County Detention Center (OCDC), according to the lawsuit, which was filed on March 28, 2023.

Graham’s suit comes just days after a grand jury report documented that OCDC inmates are easily breaking through walls, windows of the facility’s cells are so badly damaged that detention officers could not properly conduct site checks, and there are lingering problems with insect infestation.

The lawsuit names the nine trustees that represent the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, including the sheriff, the Oklahoma County Detention Center, and Corporal McKinley, a detention center officer.

Graham, who was booked into the OCDC on March 24, 2021, was kept in a suicide watch cell that had no running water, which was shut off because flooding had caused feces and urine to overflow to the floor, according to Peter Scimeca, an attorney for Graham. According to the lawsuit, there was an unknown chemical mixed with the other substances on the floor and the liquid on the floor inadvertently splashed on Graham’s face.

Medical records obtained by ABC News show Graham was moved to a “dry” cell as part of the suicide watch.

“She was crying out for help for hours, asking for a cup of water to clean her face,” said Scimeca. “[The corrections officers] let her scream in agony and pain instead of getting her an effing cup of water and her skin was burning. That’s how sorry those conditions are.”

When asked about the allegations in November 2022 by KFOR, OCDC Communications Director Mark Opgrande issued a statement disputing the allegations, saying in part, “each cell is equipped with a sink with hot and cold water faucets, therefore there were no barriers which would have prevented Ms. Graham from washing her face.” He added, “We strive, along with our health care vendor, to provide the best care possible to detainees.”

The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Oklahoma County Detention Center public information officers said they could not comment on pending litigation when contacted by ABC News. Corporal McKinley, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, could not be reached since his full name was not revealed.

According to Graham’s attorneys, criminal charges against their client were never officially filed and were later fully dropped.

Sebastian Van Coevorden, the attorney who filed Graham’s lawsuit, said that Graham was moved out of the suicide unit and into a behavioral health unit where she pushed a button for immediate medical aid over 50 times. He said no one responded.

“Time and time again, it comes from a lack of training, but also just an indifference to the conditions that Miss Graham had to deal with,” said Van Coevorden.

A hospital later diagnosed Graham with chemical burns to the face related with a combination of urine and feces, according to the lawsuit. She was also diagnosed with bacterial conjunctivitis of both eyes, a severe facial rash and facial cellulitis, according to the lawsuit.

OCDC medical records show Graham was treated several times with Benadryl and cream, according to KFOR, which reported that Graham was first seen by medical staff on March 27, 2021, for a “rash and swelling to her face.”

Van Coevorden said Graham did not receive medical care other than the cream for five days, until she was transferred to another jail and released. Scimeca said that Graham’s family took her to the hospital upon release, but the rural hospital could not handle the extent of her injuries and had to transfer her to a larger hospital.

“Even worse, when she’s finally released, and it’s so apparent that this girl has burnt her face off, they start trying to make excuses. And the excuse is she did it to herself,” said Scimeca. According to KFOR, Opgrande said her medical records stated she admitted to medical staff she rubbed feces and urine into her face, allegations Graham’s attorneys deny.

Scimeca and Van Coevorden said that Graham has had to deal with multiple infections since 2021. They said her face still hurts and her emotional health was severely impacted.

“She is a sweet, vulnerable person who is determined to not let Oklahoma County Jail get away with this and others that have facilitated this embarrassment,” said Scimeca.

“She just wants accountability,” said Van Coevorden.

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