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New York Prisoner Wins $50,000 In Failure To Treat Mental Illness Suit

by Matthew T. Clarke

A federal district court in New York has held that officials of the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) subjected a prisoner to cruel and unusual punishment through their deficient treatment of his mental illness and by the brutal conditions under which he was incarcerated.

Anthony Perri, a mentally ill New York state prisoner, was assisted by the Prisoner Legal Services of New York in filing suit against Thomas A. Coughlin, Commissioner of DOGS and Richard Surles, Commissioner of Mental Health, alleging that their failure to properly treat his mental illness and the barbaric conditions of his confinement while incarcerated in the Observation Unit (OBS) of the Special Housing Unit in Clinton Correctional Facility constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

While at OBS, Perri was held unclothed and without a matress, blanket or bedding in a cell containing only a sink and toilet which was brightly lit twenty-four hours a day. The only window (other than the one in the solid cell door) was very small and could only be operated by guards. When the window was opened, Perri's complaints of being cold were ignored for hours. He was denied personal property, hygenic supplies, legal materials, writing materials, and mail. He developed body sores.

By design, there was no opportunity for contact between prisoners at OBS. There were no programs, recreation, or group therapy. Perri was only permitted to leave the cell twice a week for showers or to go to a visit.

After months of this treatment, Perri smeared feces and urine all over himself and his cell and refused solid foods. He was transferred to another OBS cell. Three weeks later, he attempted suicide, severing an artery among other injuries. He was then transferred to Central New York Psychiatric Center (CNYPC), but was returned to the same conditions in Clinton's OBS only nine days later, even though he still showed signs of mental illness.

After two more month in OBS, Perri destroyed his cell's sink and toilet. For this he was handcuffed, shackled and kicked in the rectum, causing severe pain. He twice attempted to hang himself. Both times, staff let him hang until he was unconscious. Finally, he was again transferred to CNYPC. A month later, he was transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility. There he stabilized.

Perri claimed that he received inadequate care at CNYPC because it lacked the facilities for long term intensive care. Therefore, he was repeatedly compelled to face the inhumanity of cell life at OBS.

The defendants claimed there was no proof of their personal involvement in Perri's ordeal or treatment, therefore they were entitled to qualified immunity. The court held that New York Correction Law § 401 affixed responsibility for prisoners' mental health treatment on the defendants, and they could not dodge that statutory responsibility by claiming a lack of personal involvement.

Experts had testified to the inhumane conditions at OBS and the policy of reducing expenses by transferring prisoners from CNYPC quickly. The responsibility for Perri's (mis)treatment was therefore the defendants'.

The court stated it "had great difficulty agreeing that prison authorities may not be deliberately indifferent to an inmate's current health problem but may ignore a condition of confinement that is sure or very likely to be the cause of serious illness and needless suffering."

Therefore, the court awarded Perri $50,000 in compensatory damages, statutory costs, disbursements, and attorney fees. The defendants did not appeal. The ruling is unpublished. See: Perri v. Coughlin, 1999 WL 395374 (N.D.N.Y. 1999).

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Related legal case

Perri v. Coughlin


*6 To prevail on a claim that the conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a plaintiff must meet an objective and subjective test. Jolly v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 468, 489 (2d Cir.1996); Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834, 114 S. Ct 1970, 1977, 128 L.Ed.d. 811 (1994). To satisfy the objective test, "a plaintiff must show that the conditions of his confinement result in 'unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs." ' Jolly, 76 F.d. at 480 (quoting Anderson v. Coughlin, 757 F.d. 33, 35 (d Cir.1985); see Farmer, 511 U .S. at 834. (Holding that a prison official's acts must deprive an inmate of the "minimal civilized measures of life's necessities." (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). The subjective test requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant prison officials imposed those conditions with deliberate indifference; Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; Jolly, 76 F.d. at 480. For deliberate indifference to be found, the prison official must have "know[n] of and disregarded] an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must [have been] aware of the fact from which the inference could have been drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also [have] draw[n] the inference." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837.

There can be no doubt that plaintiff's conditions of confinement have repeatedly been found to violate an inmate's Eighth Amendments rights. Blissett v. Coughlin, 66 F.d. 531, 537 (d.Cir.1995); see McCray v. Burrell, (confinement of a nude prisoner in a barren cell without any personal articles) 516 F.d. 357, 359 (4th Cir.1975); cert. dismissed, 426 U.S. 471 (1976); Hoptowit v.. Mason, 682 F.d. 137, 1257-58 (9th Cir.1982) ("The deprivation of nearly all fresh air and light, particularly when coupled with [lack of control over artificial illumination], creates an extreme hazard to physical and mental well-being of the prisoner in violation of the Eighth Amendment."); Maxwell v. Mason, 668 F.d. 361, 363 (8th Cir.1981)(deprivation of adequate clothing and bedding bears "no relation whatsoever to any security measure" and amounts to "an unnecessary infliction of pain" to a prisoner held in isolation and permitted only underwear an a mattress).

"An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met ... deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain proscribed by the Eighth Amendment regardless how evidence, deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious illness or injury states a cause of action under § 1983" Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 102, 103-105, 429 S.Ct. 285, 290, 291, 50 L.Ed.d. 251 (1976). "When incarceration deprives a person of reasonably necessary medical care (including psychiatric or mental health care) which would be available to him or her if not incarcerated, the prison authorities must provide such surrogate care." Langley v. Coughlin, 888 F.d. 252, 254 (d.Cir.1989).

*7 When the state, by imprisonment, prevents a person from caring for himself, the Constitution imposes " 'a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well being." ' Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 32, 113 S.Ct. 2475, 2480, 125 L.Ed.d. 22 (1993). Having stripped [prisoners] of virtually every means of self protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, "society may not simply lock away offenders and let "the state of nature take its course." DeShaney v. Winnebago Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 198, 199-200, 109 S.Ct. 998, 1005-1006, 103 L.Ed.d. 249 (1989). Rather, governmental officials must ensure that prisons while perhaps "restrictive and even harsh," Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347, 101 S.Ct.2392, 2399, 69 L.Ed.2d 59 (1981), do not degenerate into places that violate basic standards of decency and humanity. In short, while the Eight Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons ... neither does it permit inhumane ones. Repeated examples of delay or denied medical care, haphazard or ill-conceived medical practices can serve to demonstrate deliberate indifference. Todaro v. Ward, 565 F.d. 48, 52 (d.Cir.1977). The court has great difficulty agreeing that prison authorities may not be deliberately indifferent to an inmates's current health problems but may ignore a condition of confinement that is sure or very likely to be, the cause of serious illness and needless suffering. Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 33, 113 S.Ct. 2475, 2480, 125 L.Ed.d. 22 (1993).

There are six components of minimally adequate prison mental health care delivery system under the Eighth Amendment:
1) A systematic program for screening and evaluating inmates to identify those in need of mental health care;
2) A treatment program that involves more than segregation in close supervision of mentally ill inmates;
3) Employment of a sufficient number of mental health professionals:
4) Maintenance of accurate complete and confidential mental health treatment records;
5) Administration of psychotropic medications only with appropriate supervision and periodic examination;
6) A basic program, to identify, treat, and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
Balla v. Idaho State Board of Corrections, 595 F.Supp.. 1558, 1577 (D.Idaho 1984); modified on other grounds F.d. 461 (9th Cir, 1988). The evidence in this case constrains the court to conclude that these minimally adequate mental health care delivery system components set forth in Balla, supra, were violated by defendants' conduct.

The court must first examine the evidence adduced at trial in terms of defendants' potential § 1983 liability. To bring a § 1983 action against an individual, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted under color of state law in a way that deprived the plaintiff of "any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution." 42 U.S.C. § 1983. "As a prerequisite to maintaining a § 1983 action against an individual in his individual capacity, a plaintiff must [establish] ... defendant's direct or personal involvement in the alleged constitutional deprivation." Feliciano v. Goord, 97 Civ. 263, 1998 WL 436358, at 3 (S.D.N.Y. July 27, 1998)(citing Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.d. 865, 873 (d.Cir.1995). That is so because "[l]iability for damages in a § 1983 action may not be based on the respondeat superior or vicarious liability doctrines." Id. "Nor may a defendant be held liable merely by his connection to events through links in the chain of command." Id. Prison supervisors cannot be held liable simply by virtue of the actions of subordinates. Moreover, the mere allegation that a supervisory official is in charge of a facility or agency does not establish his personal involvement. Gill v. Mooney, 824 F.d. 192, 196 (d.Cir.1987).

*8 In Williams V. Smith, 781 F.d. 319, 323-24 (1986), the Second Circuit held that establishing personal involvement of a defendant in a § 1983 constitutional deprivation can be demonstrated in five ways. 1) The defendant may have directly participated in the infraction. 2) a supervisory official, after learning of the violation through a report or appeal, may have failed to remedy the wrong. 3) A supervisory official may be liable because he or she created a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred, or allowed such a policy or custom to continue to continue. 4) A supervisory official may be personally liable if he or she was grossly negligent in managing subordinates who caused the unlawful condition or event. 5) the defendant exhibited deliberate indifference to the rights of inmates by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional acts were occurring.

1. Defendant Coughlin

The court, therefor, will initially consider whether plaintiff Perri hascome forth with sufficient proof of personal involvement on the part of defendants Coughlin and Surles, so as to support a finding of § 1983 liability in their personal capacities.

Plaintiff Perri testified that defendant Coughlin was a state actor who became aware of, and personally involved in his difficulties through his receipt of these four letters:

1) letter from Warden Senkowski of the Clinton Correctional Facility dated May 30, 1990, describing plaintiff's then ongoing hunger strike and his loss of fifteen pounds;

2) letter from plaintiff dated July 4, 1990, threatening suicide if he is returned to Clinton from CNYPC;

3) letter from plaintiff to Governor Cuomo dated July 17, 1990, describing his climbs to the roof of Green Haven Correctional Facility, and the yard wall at Clinton, a suicide attempt, his inadequate treatment, and another suicide threat; and

4) letter from defendant Coughlin to his immediate superior, John J. Poklemba, Director of Criminal Justice, dated August 28, 1990, answering an inquiry concerning the plaintiff's letter to the Governor. The letter places the blame for plaintiff's behavior on his deteriorating poor adjustment pattern which included five self-inflicted injuries or attempted suicides.

Defendant Coughlin testified he had not heard of the plaintiff, written to him or been contacted by an attorney on his behalf. He stated that while DOCS Commissioner, most of his time was spent working on matters external to the Department e.g. the politics of dealing with the legislature and the Governor. Because 8,000 to 9,000 pieces of inmate mail were annually received by DOCS, a special Department of Inmate Responses had to be established to process it. Three to four clerks read these letters and directed to them the proper Assistant Commissioners for Operations for investigation. Each letter received was affixed with a date stamp and logged in with a control number to show were the letter was sent for review and its disposition. If the reviewing party determined that a reply was necessary, a letter would be prepared and a machine would affix defendant Coughlin's signature thereto.

*9 In this manner, Superintendent Senkowski's letter of May 30, 1990, to defendant Coughlin was mandated by the DOCS policy which requires all prisoner hunger strikes to be reported to the Department. This letter was referred to, and a reply made by Glenn Goord, Deputy Commissioner for Operations. Deputy Commissioner Goord also prepared the reply to plaintiff Perri's letter of July 17, 1990, to Governor Cuomo which was inquired about by John J. Poklemba, Director of Criminal Justice and an aide of the Governor. Plaintiff's suicide threat letter of July 4, 1990, was replied to by a staff member. Suicide threats are considered very serious matters and officials of the facility where the prisoner is confined or is to be confined are notified immediately of any threats of this nature.

Regarding the possibility that plaintiff's law suit naming Coughlin as a defendant may have brought his conditions of confinement and medical treatment to Coughlin's attention, the former DOCS Commissioner testified that he was not advised of the specifics of a case unless it was a major case which could possibly have and impact upon the entire state prison system. The DOCS staff did not consider plaintiff Perri's lawsuit to be such a case. The reason for this policy is reflected in the fact that at the time of his retirement in 1994, defendant Coughlin was a named defendant in 7,000 law suits.

Defendant Coughlin further testified that he had no responsibility for the mental health care of prisoners. DOCS had entered an agreement with the Office of Mental Health whereby OMH was to provide mental health care to prison inmates through a series of satellite units in the correctional facilities and referrals therefrom to the CNYPC. Prison medical personnel would refer an inmate with an apparent mental illness to the facility satellite unit where he would be evaluated by people from the OMH and a course of treatment set by the unit chief. Defendant Coughlin had no connection with this process.

"However, even if defendant Coughlin remained uniformed he was nonetheless charged by statute with the responsibility of developing appropriate treatment for inmates in need of psychiatric care. See New York Correctional Law § 401. To the extent that he failed to develop and implement such program or policies, or delegated that responsibility to others whom he then failed to supervise adequately, the liability criteria set forth in Williams are satisfied. Langley v. Coughlin, 709 F.Supp., 482, 486 (S.D.N.Y.1989) appeal dismissed 888 F.d. 252 (d.Cir.1989). Since it is very apparent in this case that plaintiff's mental health care was woefully inadequate, defendant Coughlin remains liable for damages occurring as a result thereof.

2. Defendant Surles

Defendant Richard C. Surles was the New York State Commissioner of Mental Health from 1987 to December 31, 1994. Plaintiff and his witnesses testified that defendant Surles was also a state actor who was made aware of plaintiff's situation by two separate events.

*10 First, the initiation of this lawsuit as well as the commencement of two class action lawsuits in which the Commissioner of Mental Health was named as a defendant. These law suits alleges a pattern and practice of physical assaults and summary punishment in mental observation and treating units at the Clinton, Green Haven and Auburn Correctional Facilities. Tomasulo v. LeFevre, 84-CV-1035 (N.D.N.Y.), and Anderson v. Coughlin, 87-CV-141 (N.D.N.Y.). The allegations in Tomasulo specifically included the Clinton O.B.S. where plaintiff was confined, and the use of O.B.S. for punitive segregation under inhumane conditions including confining inmates in O.B.S. cells naked and without human needs.

Second, plaintiff's amended complaint alleges that neither Clinton or CNYPC had the capacity to treat mental illness like plaintiff's which required long term intensive care. Therefore, even if defendant Surles remained uninformed, he was nonetheless still charged by statute that, in cooperation with DOCS, he was to provide effective mental treatment and services to inmates, and the administration and operation of the programs established thereunder was his responsibility. New York Correction Law § 401. If defendant Surles failed to carry out his statutory duty, or delegated this responsibility to others whom he did not properly supervise he would continue to be personally liable.

The testimony in this case shows that while a smattering of mental health and prison personnel attempted to alleviate plaintiff's torment, the overwhelming majority of those charged with his health care did nothing more than act to exacerbate it. The fact that plaintiff's condition was subsequently stabilized at another correctional facility to the point where he was paroled further highlights the inadequacies of his prior mental illness treatments. As stated above, New York Correction Law § 401 obliges DOCS to provide mental health services to inmates, and the Office of Mental Health provides such services for DOCS. As Commissioner of Mental Health defendant Surles was responsible for providing adequate mental health treatment programs for defendant, and by not doing so, must respond in damages to plaintiff. Langley v. Coughlin, 709 F.Supp., at 486; Clarkson v. Coughlin, 783 F.Supp., 789, 796 (S.D.N.Y.1992).

The testimony of the other witnesses in this proceeding was a miscellany of accusation and denial and did nothing to refute the legal obligations of defendants Coughlin and Surles in this case.

Qualified Immunity
Defendants' attempt to interpose a defense of qualified immunity is of no avail. This defense is available to government officials to "avoid excessive disruption of government and permit the resolution of many insubstantial claims." Hallow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818; 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.d. 396 (1982). However, the defense is available to government officials only "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. The statutory or constitutional rights must be clearly established in a "particularized" sense so that "[t]he contours of the right" are that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3039, 97 L.Ed.d. 523 (1987).

*11 "A right is clearly established if it meets one of three tests: (1) it is defined with reasonable clarity; or (2) the Supreme Court or Circuit has affirmed its existence; or (3) a reasonable defendant would understand from existing law that his acts were unlawful." Actions of state officials in delaying or ignoring their statutory obligations to mentally ill inmates, constitutes deliberate indifference to serious medical needs to those inmates for purposes of the Eighth Amendment. A finding of deliberate indifference necessarily precludes a finding of qualified immunity. Cook v. Sheldon, 41 F.d. 73, 78 (d.Cir.1994). Prior to the period in 1990 when the events in this case took place, the Supreme Court had held that "deliberate indifference" to serious medical needs of prisoners" violated the Eight Amendment, as made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and prisoners constitutional right to be free from inhumane conditions have been repeatedly recognized. Rhodes v. Chapman, 422 U.S. at 352. The evidence before the court shows the objective component of an Eight Amendment violation, "the defendant could not plausibly persist in claiming lack of awareness any more than prison officials who state during litigation that they will not take reasonable measures to abate an intolerable risk of which they are aware could claim to be subjectively blameless for purposes of the Eighth Amendment." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. at 846 n. 9, 114 S.Ct. at 1983 n. 9.

Therefore, based upon the above, the court finds plaintiff's mental health care was constitutionally inadequate due to the failure of the defendants to carry out their statutory obligations to establish appropriate programs for the treatment of mentally ill inmates confined in state correctional facilities, and this, in turn, triggered his confinement in inhumane conditions. As a result thereof, plaintiff sustained physical and mental suffering and damages and is entitled to reasonable compensation in the amount of Fifty Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($50,000.00), statutory costs, disbursements and attorneys fees, for which sum defendants Coughlin and Surles are jointly and severally liable to the plaintiff. Application for attorneys fees on behalf of the plaintiff should be submitted to the court within 30 days of the date hereof.


Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 1999 WL 395374 (N.D.N.Y.)