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Warden May Be Liable for Suicide for Lack of Mental Health Staffing

The plaintiff was sentenced to 60 days for possession of Valium in the third degree. After six days in jail he drank cleaning fluid, which was viewed by staff as a suicide attempt despite his claim he mistook it for orange juice. He had a history of depression and attempted suicide as well as substance abuse, and had an extensive history of outpatient psychiatric treatment. He was placed on suicide watch.

The jail's suicide policy was "verbal," not written, and prescribed that inmates who made statements about self-harm would be evaluated for suicide watch, in which status they would be segregated, checked on every 15 minutes, given medical treatment and counselling, deprived of clothing and other belongings, required to wear a paper gown, and restricted from access to the commissary and telephone and from having visitors.

After a certified mental health screener said that the decedent seemed "perky and talkative with a positive outlook" and an officer with no mental health training and a nurse had the same impression, they discussed it with senior staff members and he was taken off suicide watch, and of course killed himself the next day.

The "Low-Level Employees" are all entitled to summary judgment. The failure to consult a mental health professional (the qualifications of the "certified mental health screener" are not stated) was not deliberate indifference. At 400: "Rather, that failure is evidence that the Department's underlying suicide policy was flawed for not having a professional on staff to consult." At 403:

A reasonable factfinder could conclude that the absence of qualified mental health personnel who could assist the Department employees in making an assessment of an inmate's suicidal vulnerability was a serious deficiency in the Department's suicide policy that created a serious risk that injury or death would result from an inmate's attempted or successful suicide.

There was also a factual issue as to the Warden's knowledge of the resulting serious risk. Summary judgment is therefore denied to the Department and the Warden. See: Estate of Cills v. Kaftan, 105 F.Supp.2d 391 (D.N.J. 2000).

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Related legal case

Estate of Cills v. Kaftan