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Almost $2.4 Million in Settlements For Seven Suicides at New Jersey Jail

by David M. Reutter

The families of two women and five men who committed suicide while held in pretrial detention between July 2014 and November 2018 at New Jersey’s Cumberland County Jail (CCJ) have received a total of $2,372,500 to settle their claims against the County and its profiteering medical vendor, CFG Health Systems, LLC. Four guards were also criminally charged in three of the deaths.

Suicides have kept the jail under scrutiny since 2018, when the People’s Organization for Progress and the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program called for an investigation of CCJ. New Jersey’s Association of Criminal Justice Defense Lawyers put its own request for an investigation in a petition to the state Attorney General’s Office, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.14]

But lasting change is rare, given the ongoing incentives to scrimp on staffing and medical care for transient populations held in jails. For prison profiteers, lawsuits are just part of the business model, as they calculate settlements or verdicts are more cost effective than providing contracted services. Usually in such cases, though, a settlement is the only justice that a dead detainee’s estate can get. Each of these seven cases was litigated in federal Court for the District of New Jersey.

$140,000 for the Suicide of David Hennis

Vineland Police Department officers arrested David Hennis on July 22, 2014. The civil rights complaint later filed on his behalf alleged that just over a week later, on July 30, 2014, Hennis banged on the door in his holding cell in the CCJ infirmary for more than a half-hour, in a futile effort to get attention or to seek help. A nurse later discovered Hennis hanging in the cell, but attempts to resuscitate him failed.

The complaint alleged that CCJ and CFG Defendants failed to “properly screen Hennis for any suicidal tendencies, or any other psychological problems, and also failed to monitor Mr. Hennis, even though they were aware of [his] prior attempts to commit suicide.”

On August 5, 2021, a settlement was reached, providing a cash payment to the estate of $35,000 by CFG and $105,000 by Cumberland County, including costs and fees for the Estate’s counsel from the Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto in Laurel Springs. See: Est. of Hennis v. Balicki, USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:16-cv-04216.

$175,000 for the Suicide of Allissa Allen

Alissa Marie Allen was arrested on an outstanding warrant by Millville Police officers on March 20, 2015, when she was also charged with possessing drug paraphernalia and not wearing a seat belt. She was booked into CCJ in the early morning hours of the following day and held on a $728 bond. A day after that, Allen “was discovered ‘hanging’” in her cell on March 22, 2015, according to the complaint later filed on her behalf. That also alleged that Defendants failed to properly screen Allen “for any suicidal tendencies, or any other psychological problems, and for failing to properly monitor her.”

Represented also by the Benedetto firm, Allen’s estate settled on August 5, 2021. The Settlement Agreement required payment of $35,000 by CFG and $140,000 by the County. See Est. of Allen v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:15-cv-06273.

$157,500 for the Suicide of Robert Lewis

Robert Wayne Lewis was arrested on a robbery charge by Vineland Police on October 26, 2015. Taken to CCJ, he was discovered hanging in a shower by fellow detainees three days later and died on October 29, 2015. In another suit filed by the Benedetto firm, Lewis’ Estate alleged the same civil rights violations detailed in the two previous cases.

A Settlement Agreement reached on January 20, 2022, required CFG to pay $28,150 and Cumberland County to pay $129,350. The distribution document filed with the court showed that of the $157,500 total settlement, $67,257.58 went towards costs, including attorney fees of $20,054.98 to Benedetto’s firm and $10,027.49 to attorney John Kusturis. That left $60,159.95 for Lewis’ mother, Tammy Wilson. See: Est. of Lewis v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:16-cv-03503.

$200,000 for the Suicide of Jon Watson

During the screening process while he was booked into CCJ on May 18, 2016, Jon Leon Watson said that he had a serious illness, was taking medication and had a mental disability. The next day, a nurse commented that Watson was suffering depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, referring him for housing in a mental health unit “ASAP.” Later that day he was also seen by psychiatrist Dr. Khalid Bajwa, who placed Watson on Suicide Watch Level 2, which entails checks every 30 minutes. He also prescribed Dispersal and Benedryl.

Later that night, Dr. Bajwa reevaluated Watson and placed him on Level 3 suicide watch. He diagnosed Watson with mood disorder and unspecified psychosis, as well as alcohol and opioid dependence. Between May 22 and June 1, 2016, Watson was examined and reevaluated numerous times. He experienced seizures but was cleared for general population on May 22, 2016. He reported hearing voices on May 25, 2016, and was placed in a restraint chair to protect himself from banging his head. After being removed from the chair, Watson again continually banged his head until he was pepper-sprayed. He was placed back in the restraint chair after he was cleaned up.

From May 29 to May 31, 2016, Watson was examined and denied suicidal ideation, homicidal intent or plan, also denying any hallucinations or delusions. Watson had seizures on June 2 and 3, 2016. Another detainee found Watson hanging in his cell later on June 3, 2016. At 12:01 p.m., a guard responded and panicked. Resuscitation efforts failed and Watson was pronounced dead.

Benedetto’s firm and Kusturis also represented Watson’s Estate, which reached a settlement on November 30, 2021. The Settlement Agreement provided for a total payout of $200,000, of which Cumberland County paid $155,000 and CFG paid $45,000. Attorney fees were awarded to Benedetto for $27,817.38 and another $13,908.69 for Kusturiss. Costs were awarded in the amount of $74,821.77. The remaining $80,740.57 was distributed equally to Watson’s two boys and his daughter, who each received $26,913.52. See: Est. of Watson v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:16-cv-06578.

$500,000 for the Suicide of Megan Moore

After CCJ detainee Megan Moore, 21, was found hanging in her cell on February 20, 2017, guard Tabatha Roman, then 31, was indicted on a third-degree endangering charge for allegedly failing to monitor Moore properly.

Moore’s estate filed suit against the County and several “Doe” jail guards, as well as CFG. But it was late naming Roman as one of the “Doe” guards, so it filed a separate suit against her in 2018. The Court rebuffed that effort, though, dismissing the second suit in 2019. Represented by Benedetto’s firm, the Estate settled both suits on July 2, 2022, with the County paying $475,000 and CFG another $25,000, inclusive of legal costs and fees. See: Est. of Moore v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:17-cv-02839 and 1:18-cv-16345.

As of February 8, 2023, the criminal case against Roman was still pending in state Superior Court, according to Assistant Cumberland County Prosecutor Stephen C. Sayer.

$750,000 for the Suicide of David Conroy

Though he was on suicide watch at the time, David Conroy, 32, was found hanging in his CCJ cell on May 27, 2017. Guards Justin Cimino, then 40, and Nicholas Gomez, then 27, were charged with third-degree tampering with public records for making false entries on the close watch form and incident form. They were also handed a third-degree charge for endangering another person, which was subsequently dropped.

Represented by the Benedetto firm, Conroy’s estate filed suit in 2017 against the County, “Doe” guards and CFG. Due to the criminal investigation against Cimino and Gomez, Plaintiff’s counsel obtained an extension of time to name them as defendants. But after that deadline lapsed, he filed a second suit against them. They objected, but the Court refused to grant summary judgment because Defendants failed to prove that there was “no lesser sanction would adequately remedy the damage done by plaintiff’s conduct.” See: Est. of Conroy v. Cimino, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 227047 (D.N.J.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement on April 26, 2022, resolving both cases with a payment by the County of $750,000, inclusive of legal costs and fees for the Benedetto Firm and Kusturis. See: Est. of Conroy v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:17-cv-07183.

In 2018, the two guards entered a pre-trial intervention program that allowed them to avoid jail time on the charge of making false entries. Both agreed to resign from their jobs and to forfeit future public employment. Their remaining tampering charge was to be dropped if they completed the program. As Benedetto noted, “Mr. Cimino and Mr. Gomez get to go home, but Mr. Conroy can’t go home.”

$450,000 for the Suicide of Gregory Kubiak

After 32-year-old Gregory Kubiak was found hanging in his CCJ cell on November 17, 2018, his estate filed suit, represented by attorneys from Bach, Rose, Schirripa & Cheverie in New York City. They reached a settlement in January 2023, under which the County agreed to pay $414,500, CFG agreed put up another $35,000 and guard Richard Cotto paid an additional $500. See: Est. of Kubiak v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:20-cv-09478.

Cotto, then 41, was charged in 2019 with falsifying wellness checks that he never made. He was also charged with creating “a substantial risk of death to another person.” According to the Estate’s civil rights complaint, “at some point during Defendant Cotto’s shift at Cumberland County Jail, Defendant Cotto hung a trash bag in a manner obscuring a camera’s view inside H-block,” so he could not monitor Kubiak and other detainees.

As of February 2023, his charges remain pending, Sayer said.

Other CCJ Problems

CCJ is no stranger to readers of PLN, which reported a $215,000 settlement reached in October 2021 with former detainee Lourenzo Witt, who suffered severe injuries from a brutal assault by a half-dozen guards, including Cotto. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.52.]

The County also fought a public records request all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2022 that disciplinary records for former guard Tyrone Ellis were not private personnel files – bringing to light the fact that Ellis was accused of smuggling contraband to jail detainees, one of whom he also allegedly raped, but he was allowed to retire in exchange for snitching on fellow guards. The detainee who brought the rape charge, Jennifer Cantoni, sued and reached a $150,000 settlement with the County. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.54.]

An investigation by the federal Department of Justice recently resulted in a consent decree requiring the jail to institute policy guardrails to protect suicidal detainees, as reported elsewhere in this issue. [See: PLN, Nov. 2023, p.9.]

The violence and unprofessionalism of some guards reaches critical mass in jails whose culture is warped by an “us v. them” mentality. Sadly, that leaves suicidal detainees at risk in many of the nation’s lockups, and their families and taxpayers are left to exchange allegations and settlement payouts after failures to protect them.  

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Related legal cases

Est. of Kubiak v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Lewis v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Watson v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Conroy v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Moore v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Allen v. Cumberland Cty.

Est. of Hennis v. Balicki