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$1.375 Million Award in Hawaii Prisoner’s Suicide

by David M. Reutter

On March 29, 2022, the First Circuit Court of Hawaii awarded $1.375 million to the estate of Joseph O’Malley, who committed suicide while incarcerated at the Halawa Correctional Facility (HCF) in July 2017.

O’Malley, 28, was diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorder upon incarceration at HCF on July 12, 2016, after his probation was revoked for a 2009 robbery conviction earned from holding up a taxi driver with a fake handgun. From numerous previously documented self-mutilation incidents, Hawaii Department of Public Safety (DPS) staff knew he was a “cutter.” While at HCF, he was also diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Between September 23, 2016, and July 2, 2017, O’Malley was admitted to Suicide/Safety Watch six times, four of which followed self-mutilation. He also reported that voices ordered him to kill himself or others, and he suffered visual hallucinations of ghosts, blood running down the walls, and even a dead girl.

According to the DPS Suicide Prevention Policy, prisoners placed on Suicide/Safety Watch are allowed all the same routine activities—such as family visits, telephone calls and recreation—that the general population enjoys. O’Malley, however, was placed in isolation.

That did not have a good effect. DPS Dr. Louise Lettich recalled hearing him howl in isolation, saying he felt like a dog in a kennel. It was her opinion that the isolated conditions of Suicide/Safety Watch at HCF were actually counter-therapeutic “in some instances.”

On July 2, 2017, O’Malley was transported to a hospital for treatment of a deep self-inflicted cut into his left wrist, then placed on Suicide/Safety Watch again upon return to HCF. He was charged on July 6, 2017, with misconduct for “Tattooing or Self-mutilation” when he cut his “wrist using a disassembled finger nail clipper.” He was found guilty and sentenced to “60 days in lockdown in the prison special holding unit.”

From July 11, 2017, to July 27, 2017, O’Malley remained isolated in the HCF infirmary “Observation Room.” On the last day he was found hanging from a ligature around his neck that was attached to the bars of his cell window. He was removed from life support and died the next day.

O’Malley’s adoptive father, Honolulu attorney Michael O’Malley, sued on behalf of his son’s estate, accusing DPS of negligence that caused the prisoner’s death. DPS entered a stipulation admitting liability on December 14, 2021, and the case proceeded to a bench trial on damages. The trial court then awarded $375,000 for O’Malley’s physical pain and suffering prior to death, $600,000 for his extreme mental or emotional suffering, loss of life, and enjoyment of that life, plus $400,000 to his father for loss of consortium and severe emotional distress and extreme grief from his son’s death. See: O’Malley v. State of Hawaii, Hawaii (1st Cir.), Case No. 19-1-1021-06.

O’Malley’s father said that when he met with the Honolulu medical examiner after his son’s death, she told him, “You seem like you’re in a position to do something about this. Go get them. I’m tired of them sending me bodies from Halawa.”

Added the grieving dad, “We wanted to try and do something to ensure that this doesn’t happen to any other family.” 

Additional source: Honolulu Civil Beat

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Related legal case

O’Malley v. State of Hawaii