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Fifth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Transfer Lawsuit by Suicidal Prisoner

Trent Taylor was incarcerated at the Robertson Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) when he overdosed on an unknown number of pills. Doctors determined the overdose was a suicide attempt and Taylor consented to be transferred to a medical unit with in-patient psychiatric care, the Montford Unit. He was told he could withdraw consent at any time.

Taylor was taken to a cell, but he did not like it and told staff he would commit suicide if housed there. He was taken to a special seclusion cell lacking anything that could be used for self-harm, including a wash basin or bed, and closely observed. After he was placed in the seclusion cell, Taylor said he was not suicidal and had only claimed so to avoid being housed in the initial cell. A few days later, he was taken back to the initial cell.

Upon arriving at the cell, Taylor said he was suicidal. He was returned to the seclusion cell. While there, he again said he was not suicidal and had only claimed to be so to avoid being housed in the initial cell. He then withdrew his consent for additional treatment and asked to be discharged.

Because of his intermittent claim of suicidal ideation, a committee placed Taylor in a suicide prevention housing program with designed for specialized monitoring to reduce the likelihood of self-harm. The cells have wash basins and beds, but the prisoners housed there receive sack meals instead of trays and are issued suicide blankets and hospital gowns. They are not permitted anything that could be used for self-harm, including papers, and are observed every 15 minutes.

While in the program, Taylor was evaluated by several psychiatric care providers. Two believed he was no longer suicidal and recommended he be transferred out of the program. About two weeks after being placed in the program, Taylor was transferred to a normal cell at Montford. There he withdrew consent for a second and third time and asked to be returned to Robertson. He was transferred to Robertson three weeks later.

Taylor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Montford security and medical staff violated his due process rights as articulated in Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980), by placing him in the program after he withdrew his consent and by delaying his discharge from the psychiatric unit for weeks. Defendants successfully moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Taylor appealed the dismissal of the suit.

The Fifth Circuit noted that Vitek mandated procedural protections for prisoners before being transferred to a mental hospital for involuntary psychiatric treatment. It further noted that, under Toney v. Owens, 779 F.3d 330 (5th Cir. 2015), a prevailing prisoner would have to prove that conditions in the psychiatric hospital were qualitatively different from the regular prison in that, for instance, psychiatric treatment was being given to the prisoner.

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Related legal case

Taylor v. McDonald