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New York Prisoner Suicide Lawyer

According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, across the United States suicides were the leading cause of jail deaths between 2000 and 2019, totaling 6,217. That amounts to 30% of all deaths in local jails. To put this in perspective, in 2019, the suicide rate in jails was over two times that of the general public. According to reports provided to the Times Union, the New York Commission of Correction investigated at least 90 prisoner suicides that occurred between 2016 and 2021. When it comes to prisoner suicide, who is responsible? Death by suicide is not same as deaths that involved violence by others. In those cases, blame can be placed on the corrections officer or other prison staff who committed prisoner abuse by physically abusing the prisoner or failing to keep the prisoner safe from being physically abused by other prisoners. However, suicide that was preceded by the actions or inaction of corrections officers may result in both the officers and the facility being liable, as corrections officers are responsible for ensuring prisoners' safety and providing adequate healthcare, including mental healthcare. If a loved one committed suicide while an prisoner at a New York correctional facility, their family deserves justice. Contact an experienced New York prisoner suicide lawyer at Stephen Bilkis & Associates who can provide guidance on your legal rights and help you pursue a wrongful death claim.

Why Prisoners Commit Suicide

Prisoners may commit suicide for various reasons, often linked to the stressful and isolating environment of incarceration. Factors contributing to prisoner suicide include:

  • Mental Illness: Many prisoners enter the correctional system with pre-existing mental health issues. In 2023, the New York City Comptroller published a statistic that 50% of New York prisoners have some kind of mental health diagnosis. Some of those diagnoses are mild, and some are more debilitating. In that same report, the Comptroller reported that the number of prisoners with mental health diagnoses classified as “serious” increased 2% since 2022. Untreated or improperly treated mental illness, coupled with the stressors that are a part of being incarcerated can lead to suicide.
  • Isolation: Being in prison can be a lonely experience. Even after prisoners make friends, they often still have feelings of loneliness. The separation from loved ones removes emotional support that every person needs, further contributing to feelings of abandonment and despair. Solitary confinement can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression. prisoners placed in solitary confinement experience extreme sensory deprivation and lack of social interaction, exacerbating mental health issues. Prolonged isolation can lead to severe psychological issues such as anxiety, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts. The lack of meaningful human contact and the oppressive environment make it difficult for prisoners to maintain their mental well-being, increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide. According to a review of records of thousands of prisoner suicides that was published in 2021 in The Lancet Public Health, two of the risk factors closely associated with prisoner suicide are the lack of social visits and being placed in a cell alone.
  • Violence and Threats: The threat or reality of physical violence, whether from other prisoners or correctional officers, can push prisoners towards suicide. Constant fear of being attacked can lead to severe anxiety and depression. For some prisoners, the only perceived escape from relentless violence and threats is suicide. This environment of pervasive fear and danger exacerbates feelings of hopelessness and despair, making it critical for correctional facilities to address these issues proactively. Inadequate protection and failure to manage violent behaviors within the facility can significantly contribute to the mental health decline of prisoners, increasing the risk of suicide.
  • Substance Withdrawal: Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, often without proper medical supervision, can lead to severe psychological distress. In Rappaport v. Corr. Med. Care, 159 N.Y.S.3d 205 (N.Y. App. Div. 2021), prisoner Adam Rappaport had a well-documented history of heroin use and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms at the time of his arrest. He also had a history of anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Despite these significant mental health issues, Rappaport was not referred to the mental health unit upon arrival. Three days later, he committed suicide.

These risk factors are well-known to those who work in and oversee the operations and management of correctional facilities. As a part of the intake process, there are suicide prevention screening guidelines. Prisoners who are determined to be suicide risks are supposed to be referred for a mental health evaluation and brought to the attention of the Watch Commander. In other words, there are procedures designed to identify prisoners who are at risk to help prevent suicide. It is critical that these procedures are followed. Any lapse in these protocols can have devastating consequences. If a loved one committed suicide while incarcerated, contact an experienced New York prisoner suicide lawyer who can help you understand your legal options and pursue justice for your loss.

Duty of Corrections Officers

Corrections officers have a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners. This duty includes:

  • Monitoring: Keeping a close watch on prisoners, especially those known to be at risk of suicide.
  • Intervention: Taking immediate action if an prisoner shows signs of suicidal behavior.
  • Medical Care: Ensuring that prisoners receive appropriate medical and psychological care.
  • Training: Receiving training on how to recognize and respond to signs of mental illness and suicidal behavior.
  • Reporting: Documenting and reporting any signs of mental distress or threats of suicide.
Liability of Corrections Officers

Corrections officers and the facilities they work for can be held liable if they fail to meet their duty of care. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble (1976) established that prisoners could sue if harmed while corrections personnel showed deliberate indifference. In the case of suicide liability can arise from:

  • Negligence: Failing to take reasonable steps to prevent prisoner suicide, such as ignoring warning signs or not providing necessary medical care. In Rappaport v. Corr. Med. Care, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants failed to exercise reasonable care in supervising and caring for Adam Rappaport while he was in custody. She also argued that defendant’s screening process was inadequate, noting that the nurse failed to identify Adam’s significant risk factors such as his history of heroin abuse, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and previous suicide attempt. The plaintiff argued that the defendants failed to conduct sufficient withdrawal checks as required, performing only two checks instead of the three per day that were mandated. Furthermore, she asserted that the defendant did not follow its own policies which mandated a referral to the mental health unit for individuals with a history of suicidal behavior and mental health issues.
  • Violation of Rights: Prisoner suicides can lead to civil rights claims, particularly under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, when there is evidence that prison officials violated the prisoner’s constitutional rights. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, which has been interpreted by courts to include deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of prisoners, including mental health needs. To succeed in a civil rights claim based on deliberate indifference, the plaintiff must prove that the corrections officers knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to the prisoner's health or safety. This means that the officials must have been aware of the suicidal tendencies and failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the suicide. In Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the Supreme Court held that a prison official's deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to an prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment. This principle applies to cases where officials ignore an prisoner's risk of suicide.
  • Inadequate Training: Failing to properly train staff on how to handle prisoners with mental health issues and suicidal tendencies can be the basis of failure to properly train and supervise.
Wrongful Death Lawsuit

A wrongful death lawsuit can be filed if an prisoner commits suicide due to prisoner abuse or negligence by corrections officers or prison staff. If you prevail in a wrongful death lawsuit based on a negligence claim or a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights claim, the damages you may be entitled receive depend on many factors, include the prisoner’s age, health, and length of sentence. Damages that you may be eligible to receive include:

  • Loss of consortium. Damages awarded to the surviving spouse for the loss of companionship and support due to the prisoner’s death.
  • Emotional distress. Compensation for the mental anguish and emotional suffering of the prisoner’s surviving family members.
  • Loss of Parental Guidance: Damages awarded to children for the loss of parental care, guidance, and nurturing.
  • Funeral and burial expenses: Costs associated with the prisoner’s funeral and burial services.
  • Pain and suffering: Compensation for the physical and emotional pain and suffering the prisoner experienced before death.
  • Punitive damages. In a § 1983 civil rights claim, plaintiffs might also be eligible for punitive damages. These are intended to punish the defendant for egregious or malicious conduct and to deter similar future behavior.

Each case is unique, and the specific damages recoverable will depend on the circumstances of the case and the evidence presented. Consulting with an experienced prisoner suicide attorney in New York is essential to understanding the full range of potential damages and ensuring that the lawsuit is properly handled.

Standing to Bring a Wrongful Death Claim

If you would like to bring a wrongful death lawsuit based on a suicide, you must have the legal standing to do so. In New York, generally only a decedent’s personal representative can bring a wrongful death lawsuit. A personal representative is an individual appointed to administer the estate of a deceased person. In New York, to become a personal representative, you must petition the Surrogate's Court in the county where the decedent lived.

In the case of Gulledge v. Jefferson County, 172 A.D.3d 1666, 101 N.Y.S.3d 493 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019), Demearle Gulledge, an prisoner at Albany County Correctional Facility, committed suicide. His wife initiated a lawsuit against the correctional facility and others. However, her complaint was dismissed because she was not the decedent's personal representative. As such, she lacked the capacity to bring the action as she was not authorized to commence a survival action or a wrongful death action on behalf of the decedent or his distributees. Before you move forward with your wrongful death lawsuit, contact a knowledgeable prisoner suicide lawyer in New York who will make sure that you have standing to file the lawsuit.

Contact Stephen Bilkis & Associates

If you or someone you care about has been affected by prisoner suicide, it is important to seek legal counsel. The experienced prisoner suicide attorneys serving New York at Stephen Bilkis & Associates understand the complexities of these cases and are committed to seeking justice for victims and their families. Contact us to discuss your case and learn about your legal options. Contact us at 800.696.9529 to schedule a free, no obligation consultation regarding your case. We represent clients in the following locations: Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, Manhattan, Nassau County, Staten Island, Suffolk County, Bronx, and Westchester County.

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