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Pa. inmate's suit claims guards withheld medication

In a federal civil-rights lawsuit, Tonja Jackson also says Allegheny County guards used a slur.

PITTSBURGH - A black epileptic woman contends that three white guards at a Pennsylvania jail denied her medicine, triggering a seizure during which a guard allegedly broke one of her shoulders and used a racial slur that referenced President Obama.

Tonja Jackson, 40, said in a federal civil-rights suit filed late Wednesday that a guard at the Allegheny County Jail told her, "Just because Obama is president don't mean you're still not a [slur]."

Allegheny County spokesman Kevin Evanto said Thursday that officials do not comment on litigation and that the guards, like all other county employees, were "instructed not to speak to the media."

Jackson seeks unspecified damages in the 11-page suit against the county, the jail warden, three guards, and a county officer who investigated the episode after Jackson's arrest on a bad-check charge in January 2009.

Online court records show Jackson has a long arrest record for crimes ranging from prostitution to robbery. She awaits trial on charges of harassment and making terroristic threats in allegedly spitting at a guard and threatening to hit one in the face during the events in question.

Her lawyer, Susan Mahood, contended those charges had been drummed up to deflect attention from the guards' alleged conduct.

In her suit, Jackson contends that her antiseizure medication, Dilantin, was confiscated after her arrest on Jan. 29, 2009, and that she was denied the daily medication for a week even though jail officials knew she was epileptic.

On Feb. 6, Jackson told a guard she was experiencing "auras," symptoms that often precede a seizure. Her suit claims the guard told her it wasn't "medication time" and refused to call a nurse, and that a supervising sergeant similarly refused and sent Jackson back to her cell.

Jackson then announced that "if she was going to die from lack of medication, she would do it on the spot in front of the [surveillance] camera rather than alone in her cell," the suit says.

That led the sergeant to summon others guards who handcuffed Jackson and took her to another area where a jail captain allegedly threatened to use a stun gun on her. After Jackson said that device could kill her, given her medical condition, officials transferred her to a mental-health unit and led her past the same guard who initially refused her medication. It was then, according to the suit, that the guard allegedly made the Obama-related slur.

At that point, Jackson contends, she suffered a seizure that the first guard responded to by "assaulting" her, breaking her shoulder.