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Family files lawsuit in death of severely mentally ill man held at Indiana prison
Indianapolis Star - 11/30/2021
This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 or seek out area resources.
The family of a man who struggled with serious mental illness for more than 20 years before killing himself at an Indiana prison is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Correction.
The federal lawsuit was filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on behalf of the estate of Archon "Shawnie" Garner. The lawsuit names the IDOC, Commissioner Rob Carter, and nine employees at Pendleton Correctional Facility.
Wexford of Indiana, LLC, the private medical provider contracted by the state to care for IDOC prisoners, three of its doctors, and two other Wexford workers are also defendants.
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The lawsuit alleges violations of Garner's civil rights, including access to appropriate health care services and treatment, as well as medical malpractice, and a failure "to take necessary and appropriate measures to monitor and protect him and to treat his acute psychiatric condition."
Garner, 29, of Michigan City, was found dead in his cell at Pendleton on July 16, 2020, with a gaping wound in his throat and a razor blade near his body. His death was ruled a suicide -- and followed four previous suicide attempts that occurred between April 16, 2020, and June 24, 2020, while Garner was held in the Intensive Residential Treatment Unit at Pendleton.
The lawsuit said Garner's death came two days after he was removed from suicide watch and transferred to general population at IRT. That decision was made, the lawsuit claims, by a Wexford employee "without seeking approval from a supervisor, and despite the fact that she lacked the qualifications to properly assess Mr. Garner and remove him from suicide watch." At the time, the Wexford employee was a Temporary Mental Health Counselor Associate, according to state licensing records.
Officials at IDOC and Wexford did not immediately respond to requests for comment from IndyStar.
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law. The center provides legal assistance focused on civil rights violations of people in the criminal justice system.
The MacArthur Justice Center took on the case for a number of reasons, including "the severity of the constitutional violations," said Vanessa del Valle, a center attorney and professor at the law school.
"It was very clear that Archon was severely mentally ill and needed help and that his death was preventable," del Valle said. "And we just hope to seek some sort of justice for his family."
She added Garner's death should be a wake-up call to state officials and the people of Indiana.
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"Prisons are not mental health institutions and we need to pursue non-carceral strategies for vulnerable mentally ill people like Archon," del Valle said. "Archon shouldn't have been in prison. He should have been in an inpatient mental health facility where he could get real psychiatric treatment. And if he had been, he would still be alive with us today."
The lawsuit said Garner had dealt with severe mental illness since he was five. "He was frequently hospitalized as a child and first attempted to take his own life at the age of 10 by cutting his wrists," the lawsuit said. "As an adult he was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, conditions which manifested in chronic mania and paranoia."
The state prison was severely understaffed at the time of Garner's death, according to the lawsuit. State data shows there were 142 vacancies at Pendleton out of a total of 384 positions. The lawsuit said Dushan Zatecky, who was the warden at Pendleton from 2013 through July 2020, and his successor Dennis Reagle, "were aware of a severe staffing shortage" at Pendleton and the IRT.
In addition, the lawsuit alleged Wexford failed to adequately supervise and train staff. It noted an increase in suicides in IDOC since Wexford began providing care in 2017.
"The number of suicides by IDOC prisoners in 2019 and 2020 exceeds the number of suicides in other mid-sized prison systems," the lawsuit said, including 12 in 2019 and 11 in 2020.
"For example, the Alabama Department of Corrections reported six deaths by suicide in 2019 and seven in 2020. The New Jersey Department of Corrections reported one death by suicide in 2019, and two in 2020. The Illinois Department of Corrections, which has custody of more people than the Indiana Department of Corrections, reported fewer deaths by suicide in both 2019 and in 2020 (three and six, respectively)."
Garner was sent to Pendleton on Aug. 27, 2018, after being convicted of battery and sentenced to five years. The charge resulted from Garner striking a staff member at Richmond State Hospital, where he had been admitted for in-patient psychiatric care.
Garner, who'd spent nearly two years in psychiatric hospitals before being sent to Pendleton, made four prior suicide attempts in the months before he died, according to the lawsuit.
"Defendants also had knowledge of the fact that Mr. Garner was a suicide risk and had expressed a clear intent and plan to kill himself if returned to the IRT general population," the lawsuit said. "They failed to take necessary and appropriate measures to monitor and protect him and to treat his acute psychiatric condition."
The first suicide attempt came on April 16, 2020. Garner was found in another prisoner's cell with blood on his face and clothing, and ligature marks around his neck, the lawsuit said. He told a Wexford mental health provider he'd tried to hang himself. He allegedly said "someone was trying to kill him" and that he would rather "kill himself than get stabbed."
Six days later he was removed from suicide watch. He was later put back on suicide watch, but it was lifted April 29, 2020.
Garner again tried to kill himself on June 15, 2020, by swallowing about 50 antidepressant pills. Five days later, Garner met with a doctor who "found that he was still suicidal and was having auditory hallucinations telling him to kill himself," the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said Garner told the doctor he was going to kill himself, "it's just a matter of time." But the doctor "still took no steps to refer Mr. Garner to an outside hospital where he could receive intensive inpatient psychiatric care."
Garner was again removed from suicide watch on June 23, 2020. Within hours, he was found covered in blood with a cut on his neck. Garner was taken to an outside medical facility to have the wound stitched up, then returned to Pendleton.
The lawsuit said "Garner told Wexford staff that 'he was disappointed he did not hit his jugular and that he would do this again along with breaking his neck when he returns.'"
The next day, Garner pulled the stitches from his neck and used an ink pen to reopen the wound.
On July 14, 2020, a suicide observation was again lifted and Garner was transferred to general population at IRT. The next day, the lawsuit said he told at least two other prisoners that he was going to kill himself and they reported the threat to staff.
At 7:40 a.m.July 16, 2020, Garner was found on his cell floor in a pool of blood. The lawsuit said he had "a single gaping deep incised wound (9.2 x 3.5 cm) to the left side of the neck." A razor blade, which he should not have had access to, was near his body. Efforts to revive Garner failed and he was pronounced dead about 15 minutes later.
The lawsuit said prison staff had failed to make routine checks of Garner's cell and the cells of others in the IRT unit the night before he was found dead.
Prison staff and officials had numerous warnings about Garner's fragile mental state, said del Valle, the family's attorney. She said those concerns from staff as well as others who evaluated him after the prior suicide attempts.
She said his mother, sister and grandparents also tried to advocate for Garner.
"They consistently reached out to the prison," de Valle said. "They spoke to the assistant warden. They spoke to some of his counselors. His mom even reached out to the ombudsperson of Indiana.
"They were all very concerned about him and doing everything in their effort to try to help them."
But in the end, del Valle said, there was only so much the family could do. Once IDOC assumed custody of Garner, neither he nor his family could control his care. And IDOC was responsible for ensuring his basic constitutional rights to care were met.
"It was up to the prison staff to make sure that Archon stayed safe," she said, "and they failed Archon and they failed Archon's family."
Contact Tim Evans at 317-444-6204 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.
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