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Wackenhut Settles Pennsylvania Suicide Suit For $125,000

On May 11, 2005, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now known as Geo Group) agreed to settle for $125,000 a lawsuit arising from the suicide death of a prisoner in the Wackenhut-operated George W. Hill Correctional Facility, also known as the Delaware County prison.

John William Focht, Jr. was arrested in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 2002, and charged with possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. Upon intake at the county prison, Focht, a 43-year-old father of four, indicated that he had a history of depression and had attempted suicide; that he had been drinking at least 20 beers per day and using cocaine; and that he had been taking the antidepressant drug Paxil.

Focht was subsequently interviewed by Doctor Victoria Gessner, who started him on 100 milligrams of lithium per day. Because Gessner also placed Focht in a detoxification program, he was housed in isolation where guards were supposed to check on him every 15 minutes.

Two days after he was admitted to the prison, Focht was dead. Guards found him hanging in his cell on February 5, 2002 at approximately 7:30 p.m. He had fashioned a noose from his boot laces, which he attached to a wall grating.

Evidence suggests that Focht had been dead about an hour before his body was discovered. What's more, the intake observation sheet--which was supposed to show Focht's condition at 15-minute intervals--was allegedly lost and never found.

Following his death, Focht's family sued Wackenhut, Delaware County, the county Board of Prison Inspectors, and guards Kelsey Saunders, Larry Simon, and Keisha Yeargin under state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The family specifically claimed that withdrawal from cocaine and alcohol, discontinuation of Paxil, and doses of lithium above 100 mg are all known to increase the likelihood of suicide. Thus, the family argued, Focht should not have been permitted to keep his shoelaces and/or placed in a cell with an easily accessible grating.

The family also claimed, among other things, that the defendants were negligent in failing to observe Focht every 15 minutes and for not requiring video surveillance of cells housing prisoners known to be at risk for suicide. Wackenhut's failure to adopt or implement policies and procedures to protect suicidal prisoners contributed to Focht's death.
Wackenhut, which has since changed its name to the Geo Group [See PLN, June 2004], agreed to settle the lawsuit for $125,000. The family was represented by attorney Jon J. Auritt of Media, Pennsylvania. See: Focht v. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, Delaware County Court Of Common Pleas, Case No. 03-12274.

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