Content warning: This story includes references to suicide and descriptions of self harm. For help, dial 988 to contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to reach the Colorado Crisis Services and speak with a trained mental health professional.

Following a seven-year legal battle in federal court, Boulder County has agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging jail workers failed to provide adequate medical care to a Boulder man who was incarcerated while experiencing severe symptoms of schizophrenia. 

In 2016, Ryan Partridge, 37, sued 22 jail employees, including former Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, for violating his civil rights under the U.S Constitution. Specifically, he argued, they were “deliberately indifferent” to his medical needs and repeatedly used excessive force. 

Soon after Partridge was booked into the jail in February 2016, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When he acted out, he was beaten, shot with a Taser, restrained to a chair and isolated in solitary confinement. By the time he left the jail in December 2016, acts of self harm resulted in missing teeth, a fractured spine, broken ribs and permanent blindness. 

The excruciating details presented in the lawsuit underscore the dire consequences of the state’s shortage of mental health treatment beds. More than half the people detained or incarcerated in the Boulder County Jail have a diagnosed mental illness, with dozens of people waiting for a bed at one of the state’s mental health hospitals. 

Moreover, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office has acknowledged it is ill-equipped to care for people who need treatment. Often, people with a mental illness are held in solitary confinement. This is intended to prevent them from hurting themselves or others, but it also can worsen their symptoms, studies show

The settlement has generated mixed feelings among the Partridge family. 

Partridge, who lives with his family in Boulder’s Newlands neighborhood, said he feels some “vindication” and senses “some change is going to happen.” He said he’s glad to have the extra financial security to be able to continue living in the city where he grew up. 

“It did take a long time,” Partridge said. “But at least there was a positive outcome.” 

But casting a shadow over the settlement for him, his parents and other mental health advocates is the reality that what happened to him could occur again. 

“We haven’t fixed the problem,” Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat from Boulder who has made mental health care one of her top policy priorities, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “This absolutely could happen again.”  

The court records show that Partridge’s family had asked to get him into a hospital bed and have medical staff force him to take his medication. 

One time, officers brought him to a local hospital, but he was discharged three days later and brought back to jail. In another instance, a county judge ordered that he be brought to a state hospital, but he remained in jail. Jail workers refused to force him to take his medication, arguing they were not allowed to under state law. (Under Colorado law, jail officials can transport people to a hospital where a psychiatrist can request a court order to involuntarily medicate someone.) 

As part of the settlement, the county admitted no liability and is not required to implement any policy changes. 

“The Sheriff does not believe any of the staff involved in the incident were at fault or violated the law. Nonetheless, it is our hope that the settlement will provide some closure,” Carrie Haverfield, a spokesperson for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement. “The jail cannot offer the same level or scope of treatment as a hospital.” 

Richard Partridge, Ryan’s father, said he was troubled by the county’s response to the settlement. 

“Do you really think anything is going to change?” Richard Partridge asked. “I don’t think so.” 

Ryan Partridge and his family have advocated for legislation intended to make jail less dangerous for mentally ill people. Photo courtesy of Shelley Partridge

Ryan Partridge grew up in Boulder and went to Boulder High. He played basketball in his free time. He dropped out his senior year and went to Front Range Community College where he was studying to become a nurse. 

Around that time, his life took a turn. He started binge drinking. He got into a fight on Pearl Street. After going to rehab, his girlfriend broke up with him. He then racked up a long list of charges for relatively minor crimes — fighting, reckless driving, property damage. In March 2016, he was booked into the Boulder County Jail for violating the conditions of his probation. He was well known in the jail, having been in and out many times over. But with each stint, one officer noted in the court records, his mental health deteriorated. 

He spent his first month in jail, including his 30th birthday, in solitary confinement. This made his symptoms worse, he said. He smashed his face on a toilet seat and broke several teeth. He tried to escape the cell by jamming a food tray in the door. A jail official punched him in the face. Another shot him with a Taser. He was then relocated to the disciplinary module in the jail. 

He spent the next several months in and out of the jail. At one point, a judge ordered him to be committed into a hospital on a 72-hour mental health hold. He was brought to the Boulder Community Hospital. When the three days were up, he was brought back to jail. 

From there, his symptoms became more severe, according to court records. 

When he refused to go back to his cell, a jail worker punched him in the chest. When he made himself throw up, officers wearing riot gear pinned him up against a wall and placed a spit sock over his head. After reporting that he was having thoughts about suicide, he jumped off a second-floor railing and landed head first on a metal table, fracturing his spine and ribs. He said he was delusional. A mental health worker wrote that he was not suicidal but trying to “get attention,” according to court records

A judge then ordered that he be transported to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo for mental health evaluation and treatment. But he remained in jail. His parents urged the jail to force him to take his medication. The jail staff said they were not allowed to under state law. 

Partridge spent much of his time in the jail in restrictive housing, another term for solitary confinement. This meant he was alone in an 8-by-10-foot cell with a sink, toilet, bed and metal mirror. During one stint, he spent 33 days in isolation, he said. Some days, he was let out for an hour. Other days, he wasn’t allowed out.

“I felt I had been abused. I felt trapped,” he said. “I had to take action.” 

On Dec. 17, 2016, a deputy noticed blood on his cheeks. About two hours and 15 minutes later, an officer noticed the blood was coming from his eyes. Officers went into his cell and used a shield to take him to the ground. One fired a Taser at him. He was transported to Denver Health, where a doctor diagnosed him with a self-inflicted ruptured globe and retinal detachment. He is permanently blind in both eyes.

After he left Denver Health, he was transported to a state mental health hospital in Pueblo. He hasn’t been to jail since. 

The 2016 lawsuit by Ryan Partridge highlights the dangers of jailing people with a mental illness. Credit: John Herrick

On Dec. 7, 2017, Ryan filed a complaint in the federal district court alleging that 22 jail workers violated his civil rights. Specifically, he alleged, officials failed to provide adequate medical care required under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. He also alleged they violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force.

The county filed a motion to dismiss the case. The “mere fact that Partridge suffered from mental illness and had sporadic psychotic episodes did not mean he was at imminent risk of self-harm,” the county’s lawyer argued. And if he was at such a risk, no court precedent outlines what steps jail officials should take. 

In March 2019, District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello acknowledged the “abhorrent details” of the case, but dismissed most of the allegations against the defendants under doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects government employees from civil liability. Partridge then appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals. 

The settlement leaves many of the legal questions at the center of the case unanswered, such as what constitutes “deliberate indifference” to Partridge’s medical needs or what “reasonable precautions” jail workers should have taken to protect him. But Partridge’s lawyer, David Lane, a civil rights lawyer with the Denver-based firm Killmer, Lane and Newman, said he hopes it sends a message to the county. 

“It hopefully brings some accountability to their absolutely shocking disregard for an inmate who was suffering from psychosis,” Lane told Boulder Reporting Lab. “It is designed to teach jailers the lesson that they have got to be attentive to the physiological needs of inmates or it will cost them millions of dollars.” 

Ryan Partridge and his mother, Shelley, and father, Richard, live in the city’s Newlands neighborhood. Ryan said a recent settlement from a civil rights lawsuit against the county provides some financial security so he can afford to stay in Boulder. Credit: John Herrick

Earlier this year, to draw attention to the issue, Ryan and his father, Richard, stood on Broadway holding up signs that said “MY SON IS BLIND” and “SHERIFF DEPT BULLIES.” In 2021, he, his father and his mother, Shelley, testified on a bill to restrict how long jail officials can place people with certain mental health conditions into solitary confinement. 

Despite the new law, which took effect in July 2023, jail officials told Boulder Reporting Lab they have had challenges implementing it, specifically the provision requiring people with a mental illness to be let out of their cells for two hours per day. For some people, the only time they are allowed out is in the middle of the night, officials said. 

Meanwhile, dozens of people in the Boulder County Jail are waiting for a competency evaluation or treatment so they can have their cases adjudicated, according to state data. All are still presumed innocent. When officers bring mentally ill people to local hospitals, they are often discharged in 72 hours, if they are even allowed inside. Moreover, the county said jail workers cannot give people medication without their consent. 

“This leaves jails dependent on the state hospital to admit inmates who need a higher level of long-term care than the jail can provide,” Haverfield, the sheriff’s office spokesperson, said in a statement. “Boulder County and the Sheriff’s Office continue to explore and implement methods to better assist mentally ill inmates in the face of persistent, lengthy wait times at the state hospital.” 

Since Partridge filed the lawsuit, others have made similar allegations. In 2020, the county reached a settlement with a woman after she was strapped to a restraint chair and shot with a Taser. She had shown signs of a mental illness, according to jail officials. In 2022, the county was sued after officers beat a man who had a history of mental illness. The lawsuit seeks an order from a judge requiring the jail to alter its policy to provide “care and treatment consistent with the standards expected in our community.” The case is pending. 

With the signing of the settlement, Partridge said he is ready to put the lawsuit behind him. He doesn’t want to think about the jail anymore. He wants to spend more time working out or going on hikes at Boulder Valley Ranch. He likes making coffee. The routine makes him feel good. He’s considering going back to school for massage therapy or Spanish.

He said the settlement gives him the security that he can stay in Boulder. The sound of nearby traffic makes him feel like the city is growing, and becoming more expensive. “I felt like I could lose this and didn’t want to,” he said of his home. 

Partridge said the experience in the jail and lawsuit has brought him closer to his parents. He said they are going to have to find new things to do and to talk about. 

“It’s time to make a new story,” he said. “I don’t want to be thinking about the jail anymore.”

John Herrick is senior reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness. Email:

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