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Family Sues New Jersey Jail Over Prisoner Suicide

by Ed Lyon

Did you hear the one about the prisoner who allegedly hanged himself while restrained in a straitjacket? That isn’t an opening line for a sick joke; rather, it’s the contention of officials in Essex County, New Jersey when trying to explain the death of jail detainee Lucas Vieira.

Vieira, who struggled with substance abuse and mental illness and was being held for a probation violation due to a positive drug test, was found dead in his cell. He was in a straitjacket and on suicide watch at the time.

In 2017, WNYC News conducted an investigation into the high prisoner death rate in New Jersey county jails. In response, Governor Philip Murphy pledged to ramp up oversight of the troubled lock-ups.

That apparently did not happen. One of the new guidelines, published in December 2018, requires a morbidity report to be completed after all jail suicides. When WYNC News requested Vieira’s morbidity report from a jail records custodian under the state’s open records law on April 2, 2019, they were told no such document existed. A report was then generated two days later – eight months after Vieira’s death. Pursuant to New Jersey statutes, that particular record was required to be issued within three days after a prisoner dies.

The line in the report indicating the cause of death had been redacted; a footnote referenced an active criminal investigation by the county prosecutor’s office.

There is no indication when the investigation started, and New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) acting director Marcus Hicks was not available to answer questions. According to a DOC spokesperson, Hicks was preparing for legislative budget hearings and would address the DOC’s failure to enforce the three-day death reporting requirement on Essex County officials at a later time. According to jail spokesman Anthony Puglisi, “Whenever there is a suspected suicide, the Prosecutor’s Office conducts an investigation.”

Attorney Hillary Nappi is representing Vieira’s estate and his surviving family members in a wrongful death suit against the jail and its for-profit medical provider, CFG Health Systems. The complaint states that Vieira arrived at the facility on August 14, 2018, and his mental health and substance abuse histories were documented. He was later transferred to the medical unit on August 25 and put in a straitjacket and on suicide watch.

“Mr. Vieira was placed in a straitjacket, which is the extreme measure that should only be used with a prisoner if they are presenting a very clear-cut risk to themselves, or to correctional officers or other inmates,” Nappi stated. “And we know that Mr. Vieira was placed in a straitjacket ... he was the highest level risk ... he should have had constant supervision.”

Jail spokesman Puglisi declined to comment on the case due to the litigation, while CFG Health Systems refused to comment at all. They provided no explanation as to how Vieira had managed to hang himself. The suit remains pending. See: Estate of Vieira v. CFG Health Systems, LLC, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 2:19-cv-08452-MCA-JAD. 

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Additional sources: northjersey.com, wnyc.org

Related legal case

Estate of Vieira v. CFG Health Systems, LLC