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Washington State Pays $500,000 to Family of Man Who Died by Suicide

The family of Morgan Bluehorse, who committed suicide in solitary confinement at the age of 29, will receive $500,000 from the Washington state Department of Corrections, in a settlement reached November 13.

Bluehorse was a 29-year-old man when he found himself in an isolation cell at Airway Heights Corrections Center in spring 2014.

Bluehorse went to prison at the age of 18 in 2004 for a string of burglaries. He was sentenced to a term of 15 years. Bluehorse had been dealing with mental health issues all of his life. “In prison, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe depression, and other mental illnesses.”

Bluehorse spent most of his time in prison locked in a cell by himself. The Department of Corrections (DOC) chalked this up to keeping Bluehorse safe from being harmed by others as there was fear that he could be subjected to physical and sexual assault.

Despite the fact that there was a history of mental health issues coupled with serious attempts of self-harm, staff at the Airway Heights prison put Bluehorse in a solitary confinement cell shortly after he arrived at the prison. The next day, he was hanging from the sprinkler protection cage with a sheet tied to this neck. May 29, 2014, was Bluehorse’s last day in prison; sadly it was also his last day on Earth.

The family of Bluehorse sued alleging wrongful death in conjunction with a deliberate indifference to Bluehorse’s serious medical conditions. The lawsuit alleged that the defendant knew of his serious mental health conditions from the time he was a young child until his death and also his heightened risk of suicide.

For example, in 2012 a prison mental health care worker was told by Bluehorse that voices were telling him he was “worthless and I shouldn’t be living.” He reported that his problems escalated when he was in a segregation cell. “I can’t handle these cells alone,” Bluehorse told staff.

From 2012 until his death, Bluehorse was transferred from prison to prison. Healthcare officials failed to document his history of mental illness and risk of suicide, denying him much-needed psychotropic medications, and did not do what was necessary to ensure he would not harm himself, said the lawsuit.

Bluehorse told staff that other prisoners told him that a group of Native Americans would assault him if they ran into him. This prompted prison guards to place him in the solitary confinement cell. But prison staff circled back shortly after, informing Bluehorse that he was returning to the general population. This is when he penned a small note, writing, “DOC does not seem to care about my safety. So my only option I feel is to subtract myself from the equation.” Bluehorse “took his own life instead of going through more abuse,” attorneys for the family wrote.

Morgan Bluehorse was part of a spike in suicides within the Washington DOC. Bluehorse’s family were the only ones who sued. Like Bluehorse, 19-year-old Chance Kidder hanged himself from a sprinkler cage.

After the spike in suicides in 2014-15, the DOC hired an outside consultant and made a series of changes based on the consultant’s recommendations. From 2016-18, six more prisoners died by suicide.

Bluehorse had written that the DOC did not care about him. In the end, the Department decided to pay out $500,000 to his family rather than challenge that claim in court. The estate was represented by attorney Ryan Dreveskracht. See: Velasco-Rodas v. State of Washington DOC, Spokane County Superior Court, Case No. 17-2-02543-1. 

 

Additional source: kuow.org

Related legal case

Velasco-Rodas v. State of Washington DOC