Dead Inmates and Wrongful Death Lawsuits Recently in the News

This post highlights recent articles on wrongful death lawsuits that have been filed by family members of individuals who have died while in custody.

A New York Times article, on July 28, 2012, reported on the extreme heat in Texas prisons that has proven to be deadly:

Last summer’s record-breaking heat wave had a grim impact on Texas, playing a role in the deaths of roughly 150 people. Many of them were found in their homes or apartments, but a few were discovered somewhere else — in their prison cells.

Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.

The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state’s prison agency.

Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.”

[L]awyers from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued the [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] in federal court over one of the inmate deaths from last summer. They also plan to file additional wrongful-death lawsuits.

Of significance is a ruling made by the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals on July 30, 2012 that “extreme heat can violate prisoners’ rights. In a case involving a 64-year-old former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate who suffered from hypertension and other medical ailments, the federal court in New Orleans held that allowing an inmate to be “exposed to extreme temperatures can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment”, [which forbids cruel and unusual punishment]. (Texas Tribune, July 30, 2012)

In May of this year, the family of a Hawai‘i prisoner, Clifford Medina, who was murdered while incarcerated at Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, filed a wrongful death suit against the State of Hawai‘i and CCA.

From ACLU of Hawai‘i:

On February 15, 2012, the family of Bronson Nunuha, another Hawaii prisoner who was brutally murdered at the Saguaro facility four months before Clifford was killed, filed a lawsuit against the State of Hawaii, CCA and state and CCA officials, alleging similar deficiencies at the privately-run prison. Bronson’s family is represented by the same legal team, [Rosen, Bien, & Galvan, ACLU of Hawai‘i, and the Human Rights Defense Center,]  that filed [the] complaint over Clifford’s wrongful death.  The State of Hawaii has asked the Court to transfer that case to Arizona.

The murders of Clifford Medina and Bronson Nunuha underscore the need for Hawaii to end its practice of ‘subcontracting’ our prisoners’ care to a for-profit company. CCA gets huge amounts of taxpayer money, which, instead of being used for safe keeping and rehabilitation, is banked to advance its profits. CCA puts profit ahead of people. The result: two murders and widespread allegations of sexual and other violent assaults within their facilities,” added Daniel Gluck, Senior Attorney with the ACLU of Hawaii.

Clifford, serving a 5-year sentence following a probation violation, had an extensive history of participation in special education programs designed to help him with his developmental disabilities. He had been diagnosed with moderate mental retardation during his childhood. Thus, he was particularly vulnerable to manipulation and violence by other inmates, and state officials had knowledge of his developmental disabilities and mental health condition.

Nevertheless, DPS transferred Clifford to CCA’s Saguaro facility, far from his family, and CCA failed to take reasonable steps to address Clifford’s vulnerability. Instead, CCA officials housed Clifford with violent inmates, including gang members, and did not take adequate precautions to ensure his safety.

Clifford was placed in a segregation cell with prisoner Mahinauli Silva, 22, who was serving up to 10 years for robbery, burglary and theft. Silva was reportedly a member of the dominant prison gang at Saguaro and was known to have anger control problems. Shortly before the murder, Silva told CCA officials to move Clifford to another cell or he would attack Clifford. According to a witness, a CCA employee replied, “As long as you two don’t kill each other, I don’t care.”

On June 8, 2010, Silva murdered Clifford by strangling him to death in their shared cell. Although CCA staff conducted rounds in the housing unit, periodically looked in the cell and even spoke with Silva while Clifford lay dead or dying, they did not become aware that Clifford was dead until Silva later notified them.

Today, reported on a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a mother of an inmate murdered at Red Onion State Prison, in Virginia.“[The mother] of 26 year old Aaron Cooper accuses the guards of helping a known killer set up her son’s strangulation in 2010. In return for favors that made their jobs easier, the guards allowed the attacker to both slip a noose onto the prison’s recreation yard and orchestrate which inmates would witness the murder, the lawsuit claims. The guards then refrained from checking on them for more than an hour.”

The death of inmates is not an uncommon event, particularly in Richmond City Jail in Virginia, where the inmate death rate “over the past dozen years has been far above the national average.” From Richmond Times Dispatch, July 29, 2012:

2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 to 2007…336 deaths per 100,000 Richmond jail inmates, compared with an average rate of 137 deaths per 100,000 at jails of similar size nationwide.”

“It’s a striking difference,” said Stern, [a former medical director for prisons in Washington state and] a professor at the University of Washington who does consulting work for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “I think there could be excess deaths.” Stern urged an investigation of each of the deaths to determine whether any could have been prevented.”

Stern’s call for an evaluation of Richmond’s jail deaths comes less than three weeks after Katrina Jones, a 19-year-old prisoner, died after she apparently strangled herself at the jail. She fatally injured herself after mental-health workers concluded she was not a threat to herself, even though she had tried to hang herself once before in front of deputies, according to sheriff’s officials. (Here for more on Jones)

The Sheriff’s Office also is facing lawsuits alleging inadequate care, including one involving a man who died of heat exposure at the jail, which has no air conditioning in the men’s tiers.

In June, attorneys Donna Miller Rostant and Mark J. Krudys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Grant R. Sleeper, a Richmond jail inmate who died of heat exposure in 2010. The wrongful-death suit is seeking more than $10 million and alleges that the city and the Sheriff’s Office failed to protect him from inhumane conditions in the overcrowded facility.

In February, a lawsuit seeking $31 million was filed on behalf of Sunday Lucas, alleging that in 2008 staff members delayed allowing her to get medical treatment at the jail, resulting in a stroke.

In September, a Richmond jury returned a $2.4 million verdict against Woody and the jail’s former chief physician in a wrongful-death case involving inmate James D. Robinson. He died in March 2008 after medical staff at the jail failed to diagnose or properly treat his pneumonia, according to the complaint.

More articles:

HRC: Pennsylvania Inmate Commits Suicide in Isolation Unit, Sal Rodriguez, Solitary Watch, August 3, 2012
“The Human Rights Coalition in Pennsylvania has reported on the July 16th suicide of Brandon Palakovic, 23, at State Correctional Institution in Cresson (SCI-Cresson). HRC notes that the “facility that is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for warehousing mentally ill prisoners in the hole and depriving them of mental health treatment.”

Another Man Murdered in Alabama State Prison, Equal Justice Initiative, July 30, 2012
“The stabbing death of 23-year-old Steven Newell at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, last week underscores the urgent need for immediate and meaningful reform to address violence and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons…Mr. Newell was the forth person killed in an Alabama prison since October…Violence among prisoners was up at least 40% in 2010-2011 compared to the previous year. Crowding and staffing shortages, and corrections officers’ failure to protect inmates from staff and fellow inmates, contribute to the escalating violence.”

Family of inmate who killed self says prison didn’t give him his meds, The Olympian, July 24, 2012
“The family of a man who killed himself in his cell at the state prions in Shelton in 2009 has sued the Washington Department of Corrections, alleging the prison deprived him of his prescribed medications for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, leading directly to his death.”

Woman sues hospital, deputies over jail death, Statesman Journal, July 20, 2012
“A Salem woman has filed lawsuits against doctors at Salem Hospital and the Marion County[, Oregon] jail staff for what she is calling the wrongful death of her son, who died after a fight with another inmate while in custody at the jail in 2010… In a federal lawsuit against jail staff, Haws’ mother, Diane Bernard, claims that sheriff’s deputies did not tend to Haws until an hour after the incident, even though Haws was vomiting blood, bleeding out of his mouth and nose, and showing signs of delusion.”

Berkley police sued in lockup death, The Detroit News, July 11, 2012
“A Berkley woman repeatedly asked officers for help before slipping into convulsions in her cell at the city police lockup and dying of alcohol withdrawal two years ago, according to a wrongful death suit filed by her family.”

Family of inmate who died after hunger strike sue Lake County sheriff, Chicago Tribune, June 8, 2012
“Lyvita Gomes, who has been deemed psychotic, died after 15 days without food or water.”


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