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$1,100,000 Settlement in Juvenile Prisoner Suicide in Union County, New Jersey

$1,100,000 Settlement in Juvenile Prisoner Suicide in Union County, New Jersey

On November 15, 2007, Union County settled a lawsuit over the suicide death of a juvenile prisoner at the 42-year-old Union County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The county agreed to pay $780,000 in damages plus $230,000 in attorney fees. Four private companies, including Correctional Health Services, settled their liability separately for undisclosed amounts.

Yolanda Padilla was 34 when her 17-year-old son, Edward Sinclair, Jr., committed suicide shortly after being admitted to the JDC on May 10, 2003. Sinclair was arrested for missing a court date while on probation for bicycle theft. He had previously made suicide threats, expressed suicidal ideation and revealed a prior suicide attempt to his probation officer. Sinclair hung himself from an exposed sprinkler head. The sprinkler head cover was damaged seventeen months earlier by two juvenile prisoners who were charged with deliberately destroying county property. It was last reported as a safety hazard six months before the suicide. There was no record of a work order being filled out to have it repaired. Padilla, representing Sinclair’s estate, filed suit in federal district court.

JDC routinely “locked down” newly-arrived juvenile prisoners for days pending medical evaluation. Over four years before the suicide, the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) criticized JDC practices including isolating newly-arrived juveniles, “locking down” juveniles in their cells for excessive amounts of time and only allowing juveniles out of their cells in rotation groups called “splits”. In 2000, the JJC specifically warned JDC that the first few hours of confinement were the most dangerous for juveniles acting out suicidal thoughts and that they should not be isolated, but kept in the population and engaged in program activities to allow acclimation to confinement. JDC officials told the JJC multiple times that they had discontinued the policies of “locking down”, isolating and “splits”.

One month before the suicide, the Acting Attorney General send JDC a letter advising it to immediately discontinue the practice of “splits” and “lock downs,” which he had discovered JDC was still practicing. When Sinclair was processed into JDC, he was given a mattress to put on the floor of a filthy, cockroach-infested 8’ x 10’ cell occupied by two other juveniles. As a new arrival, Sinclair was “locked down” while his cellmates were let out for recreation and other activities when their “splits” came up. He had been alone in the cell for over an hour when a guard discovered his body.

The New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate issued a report following Sinclair’s death which stated that “[t]he county’s persistent violation of applicable laws and JJC and Attorney General directives over several years, which suggests a fundamental disregard of basic human rights, led directly to the conditions that allowed E.S. to commit suicide on May 10, 2003.”

Overcrowding and understaffing also played a part in the suicide. The JDC is no longer allowed to exceed its capacity of 34 while a new $38 million juvenile jail is under construction in Linden. A $20 million new juvenile jail was originally proposed in 2000, but the plan was scrapped after the county spent $2 million on it. Since then, the cost to the county has been $2,465,952 for the Sinclair settlement, state-mandate updates at JDC and maintaining the JDC population cap, plus the life of one troubled teen. See: Estate of Sinclair v. County of Union, USDC, D. NJ, No. 2:05-cv-55-KSH-PS.

Sources: State of New Jersey, Office of the Child Advocate, Findings: Matter of E.S.; Newark Star-Legder; www.thehillsider.com.

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