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Third Circuit: No Supervisory Qualified Immunity for Prisoner Suicide

Third Circuit: No Supervisory Qualified Immunity for Prisoner Suicide

by Mark Wilson

On September 5, 2014, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to supervisory prison officials for inadequate third-party medical care resulting in a prisoner’s suicide.

The Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) operates the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution (HRYCI). On June 17, 2002, the DOC contracted with First Correctional Medical, Inc. (FCM), a for-profit company, to provide medical care to prisoners at HRYCI. The contract outlined FCM’s required standards of care, and specified that “[t]o the extent that the health care standards of the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (‘NCCHC’) differed, FCM was to adhere to the higher standard.”

In 1997, the NCCHC published intake screening standards for correctional facilities. Those standards were updated in 2003, but FCM violated its contract by failing to implement the NCCHC’s 2003 guidelines. It also did not properly implement the 1997 standards.

Then-DOC Commissioner Stanley Taylor and HRYCI Warden Ralph Williams were aware of the deteriorating quality of FCM’s medical services. Williams admitted he knew that 1) “FCM’s performance had degraded significantly”; 2) “FCM may not have been fulfilling its contractual obligations” and “may have been intentionally short-staffing to save money”; and 3) “inmate [medical] complaints had increased.”

Taylor acknowledged that NCCHC audits had “identified deficiencies in health care provision in the Delaware prison system. He also suspected that FCM was intentionally leaving positions vacant in order to save money.” Further, Taylor knew that FCM was repeatedly in non-compliance with its contractual obligations. In May 2005, he informed FCM that the DOC “would be terminating the contract” due to “serious deficiencies” in health care delivery, as described in a recent NCCHC audit report.

Sadly, that decision came six months too late for prisoner Christopher Barkes, “a troubled man with a long history of mental health and substance abuse problems.”

On March 15, 1997, Barkes killed two people in a drunk driving accident. While serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for that offense, he attempted suicide at HRYCI in October 1997. Following his release, he again attempted suicide in December 2003, by overdosing on heroin and vodka. On September 10, 2004, he tried to kill himself twice in one day.

In November 2004, Barkes was confined at HRYCI on a probation violation. An FCM licensed practical nurse conducted a medical intake screening but did not discover his extensive history of mental illness, repeated suicide attempts and substance abuse addiction. He was housed alone in an intake cell and not placed on suicide watch.

Barkes called his wife and told her that he “can’t live this way anymore” and intended to kill himself; his wife did not notify prison officials. He was found hanging by a sheet the next morning and resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful.

On February 16, 2006, Barkes’ wife and children filed a federal lawsuit against Taylor, Williams and FCM, alleging that they were deliberately indifferent to Barkes’ risk of suicide and mental health needs. The district court entered default judgment against First Correctional Medical and awarded $850,000 in damages. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.32]. The court denied qualified immunity to the other defendants, and Taylor and Williams filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Third Circuit affirmed in a lengthy decision, concluding that factual disputes precluded qualified immunity. The appellate court held that “a reasonable juror could find” three things in support of that conclusion: 1) “that Appellants were aware of an unreasonable risk that FCM’s declining performance would result in a failure to treat or a mistreatment of an inmate’s serious medical condition”; 2) “by failing to enforce FCM’s compliance with NCCHC standards as required by their contract, Appellants were deliberately indifferent to the risk that FCM’s flagging quality would result in a violation of an inmate’s constitutional rights”; and 3) “that Barkes’s suicide was caused by Appellants’ failures to supervise.”

One appellate judge dissented. The case remains pending on remand, with a trial date scheduled for November 9, 2015. See: Barkes v. First Correctional Medical, 766 F.3d 307 (3d Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed.

 

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