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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Inmate's Death in Restraints. Judge: "Torture"

This is from today's New York Times, November 15, 2006. The message is virtually timeless. The use of restraints (in prisons, mental institutions, schools) is a complex issue and one with which many are grappling. This court came to some conclusions.

Judge Says Inmate Death Was ‘Torture’

Published: November 15, 2006
CHICAGO, Nov. 14 — Shackled to a concrete slab, Timothy Joe Souders spent the final days of his life naked and lying in his own urine, sweating through temperatures over 100 degrees in an isolated prison cell.

Mr. Souders, a 21-year-old with a history of severe mental illness, died Aug. 6 after spending four days in a segregation cell at the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in Jackson. His death prompted state prison officials to revise their restraint policies for unruly prisoners, limiting the use of “top of the bed” restraints to a maximum of six hours.

But this week, a federal judge in Kalamazoo said those revisions were not sufficient. Scolding corrections officials for failing to provide adequate treatment to mentally ill inmates, the judge said on Monday that the conditions leading to Mr. Souders’s death constituted “torture.”

“You are not coat racks who collect government paychecks while your work is taken to the sexton for burial,” wrote Richard A. Enslen, a senior federal district judge. “If a patient does not receive necessary medical or psychological services, including medicines and specialty care, it is not his problem, it is your problem.”

Medical experts cited in Monday’s ruling have speculated that Mr. Souders died of dehydration, though an autopsy report has not been completed.

Judge Enslen ordered an immediate ban on punitive restraints in three Jackson prison facilities holding roughly 4,500 inmates. The court has been monitoring those facilities as part of a 1985 consent decree.

Russell L. Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the department disagreed with the ruling and planned to appeal. Top of the bed restraints, he said, are “nationally accepted, effective practices in correctional populations. We think the changes we’ve made in regard to these restraints are what is necessary.”

Mr. Souders, who suffered from depression and psychosis and had previously tried to hang himself at a county jail, was serving a sentence for shoplifting, said Paul W. Broschay, who is representing Mr. Souders’s estate in a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Corrections. At the time of his death, he was taking at least six medications for mental disorders.

On July 31, Mr. Souders was transferred to the segregated cell for disobeying orders. Three days later, after slipping out of soft restraints, Mr. Souders was restrained atop the concrete bed slab. Though Mr. Souders had been scheduled for a transfer to a mental health facility after a social worker found him “floridly psychotic,” the transfer never happened, and on Aug. 6, he was pronounced dead. A court-appointed doctor visiting the prison on Aug. 7 learned of Mr. Souders’s death. The doctor, Robert L. Cohen, wrote in an Aug. 14 letter to Judge Enslen: “No psychiatrist was consulted. No emergency psychiatric evaluation was obtained.” He concluded that Mr. Souders’s death “was predictable and preventable.”

Monday’s ruling is believed to be the first ban on punitive restraints in state prisons, said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This really is a precedent-setting decision,” Ms. Alexander said.

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