The federal judge overseeing a raft of reforms at Orleans Parish Prison voiced concern Thursday about the death of an inmate who hanged himself with a telephone cord this week in an unsupervised area of the prison, even after he had told sheriff’s deputies he was feeling suicidal.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman has refused to disclose the specifics of the suicide of Ryan Miller, a 24-year-old Harvey man who had been awaiting trial since May on aggravated rape charges. But a court hearing Thursday, intended to offer an update on the progress of the court-ordered jail reforms, revealed that Miller had been moved to an attorney visitation room, where he apparently had access to a telephone.
Miller’s mother has said deputies told her they moved her son from his assigned cell after he complained that he was feeling suicidal.
Miller’s death, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said, shows “that training needs to take place so this type of thing can be avoided.”
“The need for the training is driven home by the fact that an inmate is able to strangle himself with a telephone cord without it being observed,” Africk said. “In addition to being a tragic issue to the family, it’s also a monetary issue to the extent that the sheriff has to deal with lawsuits that result from suicides. That’s money that could be used to help provide security guards or health care.”
For inmate advocates, Miller’s death underscored the challenges that remain more than a year into a court-mandated effort to improve conditions at the jail. Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, described Miller’s placement in the visitation area as a “gravely serious” lapse.
“The fact that, three years into this case, we have a deputy put a known suicidal prisoner in an attorney booth where they can hang themselves is inconceivable to us,” said Schwartzmann, whose 2012 class-action lawsuit prompted a sweeping settlement between Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department that required wholesale changes in the treatment of OPP inmates.
“We know that mistakes are going to happen,” she added, “but this mistake, on top of several similar deaths in recent years, is deeply troubling.”
The last suicide by an inmate at OPP appears to have been the September 2013 death of Clifton Morgan, 28, who also had asked to be removed from his assigned tier and later was found unresponsive in a holding cell, having hanged himself.
During Gusman’s tenure, the jail has seen a previous case of an inmate hanging himself with a telephone cord. That was the August 2007 death of Julio Sotres, 43, an Algiers construction worker who, like Miller, had been accused of aggravated rape.
Miller’s mother, Pamela, issued a statement saying her “entire family is in shock and horrified at the news” of his death. She said in an interview this week that her son had seemed upbeat despite his incarceration and that he showed no signs of depression.
“We do not understand why the people responsible for his care and safety failed to protect him. Instead, they put him in a place of danger, and he lost his life,” Pamela Miller said.
“We are determined to find out the truth of what happened to Ryan and to do whatever we can to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s child.”
Africk’s concerns were echoed at Thursday’s hearing by Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, the expert appointed to oversee mental health care of OPP inmates. Patterson, who had yet to review any medical records or incident reports related to Miller’s death, stressed that inmates “should be directly observed” once deputies identify a need for a mental health assessment.
“I don’t understand how that may have been able to happen,” he said, referring to the inmate’s placement in the attorney room.
Even the experts most familiar with the jail reforms could not answer when Laura Coon, an attorney with the Justice Department, asked whether there is a policy at OPP for “how to observe and where to house someone who has been identified as in need of a mental health assessment or someone who is potentially suicidal.”
“That needs to be discussed,” Africk said.
It also was not clear which jail staffers would undergo suicide-prevention training that’s expected to be offered next month.
Blake Arcuri, an attorney for Gusman, said Miller’s death is being investigated by the sheriff’s Investigative Services Bureau.
In other developments, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration agreed to continue funding — under protest — an $83 million contract Gusman awarded last year to Correct Care Solutions, a company hired to provide medical and mental health care to inmates at OPP.
The city, which must pay for inmate care under state law, had refused to pay the company because it contends the contract was illegally brokered by Gusman without city input. City Attorney Sharonda Williams has asked Africk to terminate the contract, a request that will require an evidentiary hearing in coming weeks.
Susan McCampbell, the corrections expert appointed to monitor Gusman’s progress on achieving the mandated reforms, told Africk the sheriff intends to hire a new chief corrections deputy by April 3.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.