CHICAGO (CN) - Illinois officials are not liable for the suicide of a 16-year-old boy at a state-run youth detention center, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Jamal Miller arrived at the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles in November 2008. By that time he had already been hospitalized five times for alcohol abuse and attempted suicide.
To treat Jamal's depression, bipolar disorder and psychosis, St. Charles psychologists initially prescribed Prozac and assigned Jamal to a special-treatment unit for patients with chronic mental health disorders.
Jamal was transferred to another facility to participate in treatment program for residents with histories of mental illness and substance abuse but soon returned to St. Charles after being kicked out for bad behavior.
On his return, psychologists determined that Jamal was not a suicide risk and granted his request to stop taking psychotropic medications.
In a report written three days before Jamal's suicide, a facility psychologist described the boy as mentally stable with no signs of suicidal ideation.
But around 3 a.m. on Sept. 1, Jamal was found hanging from his bunk bed. He had used his bed sheet to construct a noose and written "RIP Jamal Damerco Miller" on a note attached to his door.
Jamal's mother, Cheryl Miller, sued the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and St. Charles officials, claiming that they had acted with deliberate indifference to her son's mental health needs.
"Miller's primary argument is that the kind of bunk bed that was in use at IYC St. Charles was, in effect, a death trap for any resident inclined to suicide," according to the 7th Circuit.
She claimed that administrators knew that the beds were dangerous but failed to take appropriate action. Three of six suicides at the facility since 2000 involved the same type of hanging Jamal had employed, she noted. Residents attempted suicide nearly 3,000 during this time.
Both the head of the Department of Juvenile Justice and superintendent of St. Charles admitted that they knew that the frames might be used for suicide, but said they were unable to obtain funding from the Illinois Legislature to replace them.
The officials explained that they had taken other measures to prevent suicide, including the topic on every quarterly meeting, developing a training video, requiring staff to carry a "Knife for Life," and checking on residents every 15 minutes.
A federal judge granted the state officials summary judgment, and the federal appeals court affirmed Friday.
Even if the administrators had violated Jamal's rights by failing to take appropriate steps to alleviate the risk created by the bunk beds, they would still be entitled to qualified immunity, the court said.
The administrators can held liable only if they violated Jamal's clearly established rights.
Miller's suit requires that state officials violate the Constitution when they "fail to prevent the suicides of inmates who are not actively or 'imminently' suicidal," the ruling states.
At present, such liability is far from being clearly established, the court ruled.
"It is one thing to impose a duty on detention facility personnel or prison guards to intervene actively when they see a resident or inmate who is ... on the verge of suicide," Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-member panel. "If the state officers can observe or are told that their detainee is indeed so disturbed that his next step is likely to be suicide, and yet they do nothing, it is fair to say that they have gone beyond mere negligence and entered the territory of the deliberately indifferent."
But holding state actors responsible for unpredictable suicides would "extend the duties of the facility's officials in an important way," the decision states.
As a result, the court said Miller cannot sue regardless of whether the decision to use metal bunk beds in the rooms of mentally disturbed patients constituted deliberate indifference.
"Jamal Miller was a very troubled young man, and it is likely that everyone who cared for him regrets that they were not able to forestall his suicide," Wood wrote. "But the fact that more measures, or different measures, might have been undertaken, and that those measures might have been successful (though even this is not certain) is not enough to support liability under the Constitution against any of the defendants now before us."
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