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$100,000 Paid by Pennsylvania DOC to Family of Pro Se Prisoner Litigant Who Committed Suicide

by Kevin Bliss

A Pennsylvania prisoner’s long and contentious history with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) came to a bitter end on September 29, 2021, with an agreement by the state to pay $100,000 to his brother after the prisoner hanged himself.

The prisoner, Joel Snider, 44, was found hanging dead from a noose fashioned out of the bedsheet in a solitary confinement cell at the State Correctional Institution in Houtzdale on March 31, 2021, where he had been placed for allegedly having excess legal materials and alcohol in his regular cell. He had been incarcerated since pleading guilty in 2014 to the third-degree murder of a New Berlin yoga teacher in 2010.

Even before he was turned over to DOC, Snider suffered abuse and neglect at Clinton County Correctional Facility, for which he sued and accepted a $30,000 settlement in November 2018. [See: PLN, Aug. 2019, p.38.]

After he entered DOC custody on August 21, 2014, Snider began documenting the abuse and discrimination he incurred there, eventually filing suit pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in May 2015, alleging deliberate indifference to his mental health disability as well as harassment, abuse, and retaliation against him by guards for grievances and other lawsuits—at one time he had four underway in federal courts and two more in state courts—which he filed against the prison system.

In a second amended complaint filed on December 28, 2018, Snider said the prison’s mental health staff accused him of falsifying his malady and slowly stripped him of all his medications. He documented four years in which DOC shipped him from institution to institution, greeted everywhere he went with slander and abuse, including epithets like “liar,” “snitch” and “con artist.” He said he was threatened with physical violence in retaliation for any grievances he wrote and was repeatedly regulated to solitary confinement in retaliation for exercising his rights.

His complaint also noted that between January 1, 2012, and May 31, 2012, a total of 206 prisoners committed suicide in DOC solitary confinement, after which the federal Department of Justice completed an investigation in February 2014 and advised then-Gov. Tom Corbett (R) that abuses regularly occurred in DOC solitary confinement, violating the rights of prisoners with severe mental illnesses and further exacerbating their conditions.

While Snider was in confinement, he alleged that guards came into his cell to confiscate his legal work, tear up his books, and destroy his religious items. He claimed he was frequently denied his medications for periods that stretched to six days. He was not allowed to see mental health professionals about his problems, he added, nor access attorneys to help in the preparation of his criminal defense.

His complaint documented the slow degradation of his mental health while placed in solitary confinement: auditory and visual hallucinations, extreme paranoia and impulses to self-harm, beating his head against the wall repeatedly. As a result, the Court ruled his constitutional claims against the state and prison guards could proceed. See: Snider v. Pa. DOC, 505 F. Supp. 3d 360 (M.D. Pa. 2020).

That action was still pending at his death, so his brother, Thomas, moved for substitution as Plaintiff. The Court granted that motion in June 2021, along with another to add a wrongful death claim in a Fourth Amended Complaint filed on August 18, 2021. That complaint also denied that Joel Snider had any excess legal materials or alcohol, noting that no alcohol was found in his system during his autopsy.

At a settlement conference before Chief Magistrate Karoline Mehalchick on September 1, 2021, the parties then reached their agreement. Of the $100,000 awarded for Joel Snider’s death, $21,784.84 was allocated to the survival action and $32,677.26 to the wrongful death action, with the remaining $45,537.90 going to the Philadelphia attorneys representing Thomas Snider, Christopher Markos, Gerald J. Wiliams and Beth G. Cole of Williams Cedar LLC, along with Angus Love of the Law Offices of Angus Love. See: Snyder v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 4:15-cv-00951-MAK. 

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Related legal cases

Snider v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr.

Snider v. Pa. DOC