During his nine months in the Boulder County jail in 2016, Ryan Partridge was placed in solitary confinement three times, plunging his mental health into an even darker abyss.
The first time: 33 days. The second time, maybe four or five days, though his memory of the time is a blur. During psychotic episodes, he knocked out seven teeth after smashing his head on the toilet seat and jumped off the second floor of the jail in a suicide attempt.
On the 17th day of being confined for the third time, he plucked his eyes out, permanently blinding himself.
This week, ending a six-year legal battle, Partridge won a $2.5 million settlement after suing Boulder County’s former sheriff and more than a dozen jail employees in federal court, accusing them of ignoring his active psychosis and need for serious mental health treatment.
“This is a chance to move forward,” Ryan Partridge, now 37, said Wednesday in an interview from his mother’s home in Boulder County. “It’s going to provide me security and some improvement in quality of life.”
But no money will let him see again.
“If you asked a 30-year-old person, how much money would you take at 30 years old to be blind for the rest of your life? What’s your number?” his father, Richard Partridge, said. “That’s the question.”
The settlement money includes $2,225,000 for “being deliberately indifferent” to Partridge’s serious psychiatric needs and $325,000 for using excessive force over several weeks, including being tased while restrained in a chair, according to court documents.
The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said it does not believe any of its staff were at fault or violated the law, but in a lengthy statement, said it hopes the settlement provides closure for Partridge’s family and the jail employees who were impacted when Partridge harmed himself.
The settlement will be paid using funds from the county’s insurance carrier.
Partridge’s case is “an example of the ongoing struggles faced by both jail inmates with severe mental illness and the staff who must care of often extremely violent and unpredictable inmates with the limits imposed by state law,” the statement said.
When Partridge gouged his eyes out, he was under a court order to receive mental health services from the state hospital in Pueblo, which unlike the county jail, could provide higher level, long-term care, the sheriff’s office said.
The sheriff’s office said it is looking for better ways to help people who suffer from mental illness inside the jail in the face of long wait times at the hospital.
Colorado’s state-run mental health hospitals in Pueblo and Fort Logan, which treat people in the criminal justice system, are still seeing severe backlogs as it faces a shortage of several thousand nurses.
But Partridge’s parents said the jail staff knew their son was at risk to blind himself, as he had attempted something similar in the past, and that jail staff ignored court orders to get him transferred out of the jail while he wasn’t taking his medications.
“They refused to cut his fingernails. They refuse to put the socks on his fingers to not allow that,” Richard Partridge said. “It took them two and a half hours after he blinded himself in solitary confinement, with blood coming out of his eyes … before they sent him to the hospital.”
“This was very egregious. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Department is getting off way too easy for this,” he said.
Ryan Partridge was living on the streets in Boulder when he was arrested for the first time, for a minor fight with another person who was also homeless, according to attorney David Lane who filed the federal complaint filed in 2017. Partridge was arrested a second time, months later, after he violated his probation conditions and for criminal mischief. Jail staff were well aware of Partridge’s long history of mental illness, court documents said.
Since going blind, Partridge has received mental health treatment that has helped him live without experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, he said.
“Whatever amount of money he got is not enough,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat who was a prime sponsor of a bill that banned the use of solitary confinement in local jails for groups of vulnerable inmates, including those with serious mental illness.
“It doesn’t compensate for what’s been taken.”
The lack of care Partridge received inside the jail shows the glaring gap in caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable, she said.
“We are willfully not treating the people who are the sickest who have the most acute and severe mental illness,” Amabile said. “We have turned our backs on them and decided that it’s OK for them to die on the street or for them to end up in jail and to be mistreated at every step along the way.”
“Ryan Partridge was a known person with a serious mental illness. He should have been in a hospital,” she said.
House Bill 1211, which was signed into law in 2021, targets what it calls “restrictive housing,” when an inmate is involuntarily confined to their cell for 22 or more hours a day with limited time outside the cell, movement or meaningful human interaction.
The law prohibits placing vulnerable inmates in restrictive housing, unless a health care facility declines to treat them, the person poses a danger to themselves or others, or when no other less restrictive option is available. The law was supposed to go into effect last July but local sheriffs running county jails requested it be delayed until July 2024.
But more money is needed to expand the state’s capacity to care for inmates with serious mental health needs, Amabile said.
“No one wants to spend the money on this group of people, and the thing is, we’re going to pay it one way or another,” she said. “There’s a human cost that the Partridge family is paying, but there’s also a cost and actual fiscal impact to willfully not having the care in place for the sickest people and we’re going to pay it in lawsuits, we’re going to pay it in jail beds, we’re going to pay it in prisons. We’re going to pay for it in a lack of public safety.”