Family Can Pursue Prison Death Claim

     CHICAGO (CN) – The siblings of a Wisconsin inmate who hanged himself with a bed sheet can continue to pursue claims that prison officials exhibited deliberate indifference to their brother’s long history of suicide attempts, self-harm, and mental illness.



     Jessie Miller was 22 years old when he committed suicide while incarcerated in the Special Management Unit of Columbia Correctional Institute.
     “Jessie Miller led a tragically short and troubled life. Exposed to cocaine while in utero, Miller was born into a broke home on December 3, 1987. He soon became a ward of the state and spent his childhood years rotating through 54 foster homes,” 7th Circuit Judge Daniel Manion summarized.
     Miller was physically and sexually abused and developed a number of mental health issues beginning at age five. When he was sixteen, Miller jumped off the top of a three-story building, the first of “what would become a veritable obsession with suicide attempts and ideation.”
     Miller attempted to kill himself several times while in custody by swallowing razor blades and other sharp objects and banging his head against the walls.
     He was transferred several times because of the suicide attempts, finally arriving at Columbia Correctional Institute on June 19, 2009. At his entrance screening, prison officials noted Miller’s repeated suicide attempts and that he had court-ordered medications. Miller was screened in the Psychological Services Unit and ultimately assigned to the Special Management Unit.
     Three days later, a guard making rounds at 11:00pm saw Miller lying on the floor of his cell but did not notice anything amiss. At 11:58pm, a guard named Steven Severson found Miller on the floor with no pulse and a white cloth wrapped around his neck. Stevenson placed an emergency radio call.
     Guards responding to the call waited to enter until a rescue knife and plexi-glass shield were retrieved before entering. Within four minutes of receiving the call, the guards performed an “emergency cell entry,” securing Miller’s body with restraints and cutting away the sheet. Miller was already dead.
     Miller’s siblings filed suit, charging 26 prison officials, nurses, and guards with deliberate indifference. U.S. District Judge William Conley dismissed most defendants on qualified immunity grounds, but allowed claims to proceed against the intake nurse and the psychology associate who screened Miller, as well as seven prison guards who were on duty the night he committed suicide.
     The defendants appealed to the 7th Circuit, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity.
     While expressing some doubt that claims against all defendants would prove meritorious, the three-judge panel declined to modify the Conley’s ruling.
     “At the pleading stage, it is perhaps more prudent to allow plaintiffs to proceed with discovery,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sharon Coleman, sitting on the 7th Circuit panel by designation.
     “The complaint alleges that the security officers knew or should have known of Miller’s mental illness and suicide attempts because he was adjudicated mentally ill, had court-ordered medications which he refused to take at 8:30 p.m. the night he died, and he had a well-documented history of suicidal behavior,” she summarized. Based on these allegations, the court found, a reasonable jury could find that the defendants had acted with deliberate indifference by failing to take appropriate precautions to protect Miller.
     Judge Daniel Manion wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part with the majority opinion.
     According to Manion, five of the guards who responded to Severson’s radio call should have been granted immunity.
     “It is clear from the pleadings and the attached documentation that [the guards responding to the scene] were not patrolling Housing Unit 7 on the night that Miller committed suicide. Rather those defendants were assigned to other areas… only responded after Severson placed an emergency radio call,” Manion wrote.
     That some prison officials knew of Miller’s troubled history, Manion determined, does not mean that all guards had knew of, or should have known of, his condition. Such knowledge is a prerequisite for any claim of deliberate indifference.
     “The court’s opinion would require prison security guards to have knowledge of every single inmate’s health issues in the entire facility-even those in areas of the facility that the officers are not patrolling,” Manion warned.
     Even if the response team guards had known of Miller’s condition, the complaint did not explain how they acted unreasonably, Manion went on to write. Retrieving the rescue knife and plexi-glass shield before entering the cell and restraining Miller were reasonable actions to protect guards against potential harm.
     The case was returned to the district court for discovery.

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