A federal lawsuit over whether Orange County jail personnel failed to prevent the suicide of an inmate by providing inadequate psychiatric care will proceed to a trial, after Judge Cormac J. Carney issued a ruling throwing out some of the lawsuit’s claims but finding legal reasons to go ahead with several others.
The lawsuit, brought by the mother of inmate Ryan Hall, alleges the jail violated Hall’s rights to due process by failing to address Hall’s high suicide risk with adequate medical care and training for deputies on how to monitor and supervise mentally ill inmates. They also allege the county acted “with objective deliberate indifference” to Hall’s medical needs despite awareness of his severe mental illness.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun and Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good both declined to comment on the allegations of the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.
Hall was arrested in November 2014 for attempted murder and resisting arrest, and during his initial medical intake exam was found to be “gravely disabled and a danger to others,” according to a summary of the facts in the judge’s Nov. 1 ruling. He was housed in a mental health unit, known as Module L, for a day, and then moved to general population housing after another nurse cleared him for rehousing.
Five days later, Hall was hospitalized after a first suicide attempt and attempted to kill himself again at the hospital. Lawyers for his mother, Vilma Germaine-McIver, point to a five-week period between February and March 2015 after he returned to the jail, during which no psychiatrist met with him. During that time, he was visited by a licensed psychiatric technician about once a week, according to the judge’s summary.
The unit’s senior psychiatrist, Nabi Latif, was on leave during those five weeks, and as a result, Hall and other inmates in the units did not receive psychiatric care.
“Most problematically, HCA had no way to account for a psychiatrist’s absence. When a psychiatrist took leave, there was no policy to make sure that psychiatrist’s patients still received care,” Carney wrote. “Dr. Latif simply assumed others would notice.”
Hall was classified with a yellow band, meaning he had assaulted other inmates or deputies, and was as a result not allowed to attend group therapy. He repeatedly asked to be placed in housing with the general population because of the social isolation, but staff concluded he was “at high risk” and regular housing would not be safe, according to the judge’s summary.
Hall died in April 2015, while awaiting trial, as a result of his third suicide attempt in jail. Hall was seen around 7:10 a.m. leaving his cell for the dayroom and three minutes later told a jail staffer he was finished, returning to his cell. The door was remotely locked by the staffer.
At 7:15 a.m., an inmate spoke briefly to Hall; ten minutes later, that inmate alerted staff to Hall’s cell where several deputies, nurses, a psychiatrist and other staff found him hanging from a bedsheet stuck in the door, without a pulse and not breathing. He died days later at a hospital.
Four Orange County inmates committed suicide while in custody between 2011 and 2015, according to the judge’s ruling, with Hall’s death the most recent.
Attorneys for Germaine-McIver allege deputies could have prevented Hall’s death by checking on inmates more frequently. Deputies conducted a check on Hall’s cell between 6:45 and 6:50 a.m., and if cells had been checked every half hour, the next check would have occurred at 7:15 a.m., around the time of his suicide attempt.
State law requires jail personnel check cells once an hour. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice, in concluding an investigation into the 2008 death of inmate John Derek Chamberlain in a beating by fellow inmates, recommended safety checks be conducted every half hour. The DOJ also identified “systemic deficiencies” in jail medical care.
In response to the DOJ, the department did change procedures for safety checks, but at the time did not change the frequency of the checks, according to a letter from Hutchens to the DOJ filed as a court exhibit.
Problems with safety checks were recently raised in the January 2016 escape of three violent inmates from the Central Men’s Jail and the July 2017 killing of inmate Danny Pham by his cellmate.
In the jail escape, failures to conduct regular inmate checks were a major factor in the nearly 15-hour head start the escaped inmates had before their absence was noticed, according to an Orange County Grand Jury report.
Pham, who was close to finishing a six-month sentence for a non-violent auto theft, was injured around 7:20 a.m. on July 3, 2017, but it wasn’t until 11:10 a.m. that a jail employee noticed he wasn’t breathing and began administering CPR, according to a claim submitted by Pham’s family against the County.
The District Attorney later concluded it was Pham’s cell mate, Marvin Magallanes, who killed him. Magallanes has confessed to killing a homeless man.
Carney’s Nov. 1 ruling found there’s enough evidence for many of the plaintiff’s claims to go before a jury, including arguments that failing to perform safety checks put Hall and other inmates at risk of serious harm.
“In 2014, the DOJ recommended that staff on segregation units conduct rounds at least every half hour, but OCSD had not yet increased the frequency of safety checks in 2015,” Carney wrote. “A reasonable jury could find that the County was on notice that these practices would likely deprive constitutional rights and acted with deliberate indifference by continuing to employ them.”
The judge rejected a claim that the county failed in responding to Hall’s suicide in a timely manner, writing that despite his history of suicide attempts, “there is no evidence that the deputies knew or had reason to know that Hall was committing suicide at that particular moment.”
“Hall spoke with jail personnel and other inmates less than thirty minutes before his suicide attempt. There is no evidence that Hall indicated a desire to take his own life at that time,” Carney wrote.
The lawsuit alleges Kimberly Pearson, the deputy director of HCA responsible for correctional services, and Hutchens acted with “deliberate indifference” to Hall’s safety, intentionally making policy decisions that put him at risk and failing to act to reduce those risks.
Carney’s ruling limited the scope of the Pearson and Hutchens’ liability, however, to issues where the courts have established “clearly defined rights.”
“There is no clearly established right to the proper implementation of suicide prevention protocols, such as safety checks every thirty minutes or supervised lockdowns,” Carney wrote. “The existing precedent is not ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood’ that these policies violated the Constitution.”
In other words, while these failures can amount to constitutional violations, they don’t necessarily amount to deliberate and intentional indifference to those rights, Carney wrote.
The trial is scheduled for Dec. 11, although trial dates are often subject to change.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.
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