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Three Suicide Suits At Sacramento, California Jail Settled For $1,000,000

For a total of $1,000,000, California officials settled the wrongful death lawsuits stemming from three prisoner suicides in the Sacramento County jail. Sacramento County Sheriff John McGuiness averred that the agreement to settle should not be construed as evidence of any wrongdoing. Rather, he called it “strictly a business decision meant to avoid the potentially enormous costs of trials and appeals.” But how good a business decision is it to throw away $1 million of the taxpayers’ money when, if the county were not culpable, it would have been exonerated at trial and recovered its legal expenses? The facts reveal a questionable history of excessive suicides at the Sacramento County Main jail that tells why settlement was prudent.

In 2002 alone, the jail had seven suicides: six hangings and one drug overdose. In response to criticism of this high rate, the Sheriff’s department made structural changes in the cells, eliminated materials potentially useable for hangings, and trained staff to watch for suicide risks. The results were significant, with the Sacramento jail’s suicide rate dropping below the national average and with no suicides over one 19 month interval. But these improvements didn’t come soon enough for former prisoners Jake Summers, Mohammed Abdollahi and Jose Arambula, whose deaths occurred in 2002 and 2003. Their lawsuits were consolidated by their common Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz and settled in October 2007.

Abdollahi was a pre-trial detainee on drug charges. After three days in the jail, the 51-year-old heroin addict hit his cell emergency button, threatening suicide. Rather being seen by a doctor, he was seen by a licensed social worker who determined he was not suicidal but just trying to leverage more medication. Later that night, a deputy entered Abdollahi’s cell and noticed a torn piece of sheet around his neck. Not getting a good answer as to why, the deputy took the remains of the sheet, leaving only a blanket. Shortly thereafter, at 12:30 a.m., Abdollahi was found hanging by strips he had torn from the blanket and tied to a hole in the top bunk.

Summers, only 23, had a history of drugs and psychological problems. After a difficult day in court on his strong-arm robbery charges, he was left in his cell. The sole duty deputy that day had entered log signoffs stating they had done their cell checks, when in fact, they had not. This was evidenced by a prisoner worker finding Summers dead in his cell at 5:45 p.m., hanged identically as Abdollahi. The condition of the body indicated the death was not recent; a suicide note was found on the wall.

Arambula, 32 was convicted of an immigration violation. When he was booked, jail personnel were advised of his prior psychiatric episodes and suicide attempts. Contract jail psychiatric personnel determined that Arambula was psychotic and continued his medications, albeit at a low dosage. In July 2003, he flooded his cell, began babbling and repeatedly banged his head into the doors. After deputies subdued him, he banged his head on the concrete floor, following which he was placed in a restraint chair. However, these deputies were never made aware of Arambula’s mental health history or that he had ceased taking his medications. An unlicensed social worker, after spending ten minutes with him, said he was only “whiny” and had him returned to his cell. Four hours later, Arambula’s body was found hanging from a fire sprinkler.

The lawsuit alleged defects in the county’s policies, including housing of addicts in the general population without a physician-approved treatment plan; lax cell-check procedures (with falsification of records); understaffing; and lax suicide prevention procedures. Plainly, based on the three plaintiffs’ experiences, concern for suicidal prisoners was mortally inadequate. These flawed policies of the county made them directly liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, if only by omission of constitutionally adequate safeguards for the mental health and well-being of the decedents. A major point in Abdollahi’s suit was that he was experiencing severe heroin withdrawal, specialized needs for which were simply ignored. In Summers suit, falsified records of non-existent cell checks were found contributory. Finally, the inadequate suicide prevention policy at the time of Arambula’s death was accepted by the court as a triable issue.

Named defendants included staffers in the Sheriff’s department as well as nurses provided under contract from the University of California at Davis. The settlement provided that the county would pay $450,000 while the University paid the remaining $550,000. Of the $1,000,000, half went to Katz and the three attorneys who worked for years gaining relief for the plaintiffs. Arambula’s two sons each received $100,000 annuities while his parents received $50,000. Abdollahi’s son was paid $150,000 and Summers’ mother received $100,000. See: Abdollahi v. County of Sacramento, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.) Case No. CIV-S-02-2488 FCD JFM (consolidated cases). The settlements are posted on PLN’s website.

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Related legal case

Abdollahi v. County of Sacramento