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$850,000 Award in Delaware Prisoner’s Suicide; State Declines to Renew CMS Contract

A federal district court has awarded $850,000 to the family of a Delaware prisoner who hanged himself, after entering default judgment against First Correctional Medical, Inc. (FCM). In other Delaware news, the state’s prison system did not renew its contract with Correctional Medical Services (CMS).

In 1997, Christopher Barkes was involved in a car accident while under the influence of alcohol, which resulted in the deaths of two people. He was sentenced to two years in prison and a lengthy period of probation for vehicular homicide.

The consequences of the accident went well beyond prison for Barkes. The deaths he caused left him wracked with extreme guilt, and he was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He made at least one suicide attempt while held at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution (HRYCI), and two other attempts between November 2003 and September 2004 while on probation.

Barkes was incarcerated at HRYCI on November 13, 2004 for loitering, a violation of his probation. The intake form noted he was taking several medications used to treat depression and bipolar disorder; it also noted he had previously attempted suicide.

Despite this information, Barkes was not given his medication or examined by a qualified professional to assess his psychological condition. Further, he was housed alone in a cell during his initial period of imprisonment, a known critical time for detecting potential suicides.

On November 14, 2004, Barkes was found hanging from a bedsheet; resuscitation efforts failed and he was declared dead at a local hospital. His estate filed suit against FCM and various staff members in February 2006.

The district court entered default judgment against FCM on June 6, 2008 after the company failed to appear at a hearing on its failure to obtain counsel. In March 2010 the court entered an order that found damages could not be awarded under Delaware’s survival statute, but could be recovered under the wrongful death statute.

The court awarded $150,000 to Barkes’ widow and $350,000 to each of Barkes’ two daughters. Claims remain pending against other state prison employees. See: Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, Inc., U.S.D.C. (D. Del.), Case No. 1:06-cv-00104-LPS-MPT.

Also in Delaware news, the state declined to renew its contract with CMS after the existing contract expired in January 2010. As previously reported in PLN, medical care in Delaware prisons has been under the oversight of a federal monitor due to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.12; March 2009, p.32; Nov. 2008, p.10; Feb. 2008, p.24; July 2007, pp. 8, 10].

The new contract for prison medical care will involve 10 smaller agreements that focus on specific services. Thus far, 24 companies have bid to provide health services to Delaware prisoners. Whether the new privatized system will work better than the old one is unknown.

“We’re excited but still a little nervous. The hard part is going to be putting this contract together,” said Delaware Corrections Commissioner Carl C. Danberg. “Ultimately, the proof of whether or not this whole new system works is going to be in whether or not the provision of health care works.”

In other words, if prisoners receive adequate medical and mental health treatment, which had been lacking under the state’s contract with CMS.

Source: The News Journal

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Related legal case

Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, Inc.