A young man who hanged himself last year at Orleans Parish Prison had been called a “rapist and pedophile” by a ranking deputy at the jail and was left unsupervised for hours even after warning guards that he felt suicidal, a new lawsuit claims.
The wrongful-death suit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, claims deputies deprived Ryan Miller, 24, of Harvey, of mental health care at the lockup and gave him ample means to harm himself by leaving him unattended in an attorney visitation booth.
Miller, jailed last year on aggravated rape charges, was found dead shortly before midnight on March 23, nearly four hours after he told guards at the jail’s Templeman V building that he intended to harm himself.
Authorities have said Miller died of asphyxiation after wrapping a telephone cord around his neck.
The lawsuit describes Miller’s death as “a disturbing and completely avoidable” chapter in a long history of in-custody deaths at OPP, the decades-old jail that Sheriff Marlin Gusman closed last year when he opened the $150 million Orleans Justice Center. The lawsuit says at least 45 inmates have died in Sheriff’s Office custody since April 2006.
“Although Mr. Miller’s distress was apparent to other inmates on his tier, Sheriff’s Office staff failed to ensure his safety and instead placed him in multiple locations where he was entirely isolated over a period of more than four hours,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit comes one month before Gusman is expected to testify in a civil trial over the high-profile suicide of another inmate, William Goetzee, a U.S. Coast Guard employee who took his life at the jail in 2011 by swallowing toilet paper. Goetzee had similarly made clear that he wanted to take his own life and was supposed to be under constant supervision; the deputy assigned to watch him left his post and later pleaded guilty to malfeasance in office.
It’s not clear whether any Sheriff’s Office employees were disciplined after Miller’s suicide. Gusman has declined to comment on the matter, but one of his attorneys said last year that the Sheriff’s Office’s Investigative Services Bureau had begun an inquiry into the death.
The 36-page lawsuit, filed by Miller’s parents, appears to be based at least in part on internal Sheriff’s Office records, as it refers to the specific time — 7:55 p.m. — that Miller allegedly warned deputies of his condition. It also names more than a dozen deputies and nurses on duty that day.
One of them, Lt. Patrice Ross, is accused of calling Miller “a rapist and a pedophile and apparently failing to inform anyone else within” the Sheriff’s Office that the inmate was suicidal.
“Mr. Miller informed defendant Ross that he was suicidal two days before his death,” the lawsuit claims, “and defendant Ross failed to take any action to address Mr. Miller’s distress and instead disparaged him in front of everyone on the tier.”
Miller’s death prompted a federal judge to order Gusman to retrain deputies on how to respond to inmates who appear to be suicidal. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a series of court-ordered reforms at the jail, said the case was not only a tragedy for Miller’s family but “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,” the judge said.
Miller’s parents are represented in the lawsuit by civil rights attorneys Stephen Haedicke and Emily Faye Ratner, of New Orleans.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.