Lawsuit puts blame on the state for high inmate suicide rate

Updated: Jun. 18, 2019 at 6:41 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A class action lawsuit alleges that the state isn’t doing enough to prevent prison suicides because of a lack of mental health services for inmates.

The suit alleges that Hawaii prisons and jails have the seventh highest suicide rate in the country. It says at least 26 inmates have committed suicide while incarcerated in Hawaii since 2010, and much of that was due to inadequate mental health services.

“More and more people are going to die and basically be locked up and warehoused in prison," said Eric Seitz, who filed the lawsuit. “And if they get out they’re going to pose a serious risk, perhaps a more serious risk to society.”

But the Department of Public Safety said inmate suicides are actually down. In 2016, they said there were six suicides, four in 2017 and just one last year.

This year, they said there have been no suicides so far.

“We are confident that our practices are sound and we take suicide detection and prevention very seriously,” the department said.

The lawsuit was filed by the relatives an inmate at the Women’s Community Correction Center in Kailua, who hung herself in her cell in 2017, and an Oahu Community Correctional Center prison who tried to kill himself last year by jumping off a balcony. He’s now a paraplegic.

Seitz said Jessica Fortson was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was sent to WCCC for credit card fraud and identity theft.

But Seitz said Fortson tried unsuccessfully to kill herself in 2016 and had warned prison officials that she was still suicidal.

But instead of getting her treatment, Seitz said prison officials placed her in solitary confinement where she ended up taking her life.

“For people who have mental health challenges, prison is about the worst thing you could do for them," said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons.

“And if you want to make it really bad, you put them in solitary.”

OCCC is one of several prisons with a mental health unit. But according to the suit, the prison isn’t doing enough to prevent suicides.

Frank Hampp was sent there last year after he was involved in an armed confrontation with police at his Waianae home.

Seitz said Hampp has been diagnosed with bipolarism but wasn’t given medication or a psychological evaluation, even though his medical records indicated the need.

Seitz added that when prison staffer tried to relocate him to another room , they didn’t shackle him, allowing him to jump from a balcony.

“He suffered catastrophic injuries. And he’s barely alive and is in a terrible physical condition,” Seitz said.

The lawsuit calls for the state to increase its mental health services and asks that a judge appoint a special master to oversee those services.

Doing that could cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

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