July 24, 2001
LAWSUIT AGAINST DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION
By: Susan Price-Livingston, Associate Attorney
You asked about the lawsuit the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (OP&A) recently filed against the Department of Correction (DOC). A copy of the two-count complaint is enclosed.
On June 18, 2001, OP&A filed a complaint in Connecticut's federal district court claiming that the DOC violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution by delaying or denying it access to the mental health, treatment, and other records of six inmates who died in DOC's custody. OP&A seeks (1) an order enjoining the DOC from refusing to provide it timely access to requested mental health, treatment, and other records; (2) a declaration that the department's failure to comply with OP&A's past requests was unlawful; and (3) an award of attorneys fees and costs of bringing the action.
OP&A's legislative and regulations specialist, Beth Leslie, reports that as of this date, DOC has not filed an answer. The case has been assigned to district court judge Dominic J. Squatrito who has scheduled a status conference for August 1st.
FACTS ALLEGED IN COMPLAINT
In its complaint, OP&A alleges that it is the state's designated protection and advocacy system, enabling Connecticut to get funds under the federal Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (PAIMI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 10801-10827). As the state's designated system, OP&A asserts PAIMI authorizes it to investigate incidents of abuse, neglect, and civil rights violations and pursue administrative, legal, and other remedies on behalf of individuals with mental illness at programs operated within the state or under the state's control.
PAIMI requires states to provide protection and advocacy systems access to confidential records of individuals with mental illness so that they can monitor facility conditions and provide protection and advocacy services to specific individuals (42 U.S.C. § 10805(a)(1); 42 C.F.R. § 51.41). It pre-empts conflicting state laws.
Between August 2000 and April 2001, the OP&A director made written requests to DOC for medical, treatment, and other records of six prisoners who died in DOC custody. (One allegedly died while being escorted to Garner Correctional Center's mental health unit in restraints and the other five were found dead in their cells at Garner, New Haven, and unidentified DOC facilities, apparent suicide victims.) OP&A concluded that there was probable cause to believe that abuse or neglect had occurred in these six deaths based on newspaper articles and its belief that all were either mental health services recipients or suicide victims. (PAIMI requires a probable cause finding when protection and advocacy systems seek access to confidential records in order to investigate matters that have not been raised by individual complaints.)
In one case, there was a two-month delay between OP&A's request and DOC's furnishing of the records. In the other five cases, the complaint alleges that DOC informed OP&A that it was investigating the death and would contact the agency to review its request when this was completed. As of the date of the complaint filing, OP&A alleges that DOC had not provided it access to these five individuals' records.
OP&A claims that DOC violated PAIMI by (1) failing to provide OP&A timely access to the records of prisoners with mental illness whom OP&A has probable cause to believe have been abused or neglected; (2) preventing OP&A from investigating prisoner deaths when it has probable cause to believe that abuse of neglect occurred; and (3) preventing the agency from pursuing administrative, legal, and other appropriate remedies on behalf of all prisoners with mental illness to ensure the protection of their rights. It also claims that DOC's actions violated PAIMI by preventing OP&A from ameliorating current conditions and problems that subject prisoners with mental illness to abuse or neglect.
First Amendment Violations
OP&A's second legal claim is that DOC's refusal to give it access to requested records infringes its First Amendment rights, as the designated state protection and advocacy system, to communicate and consult with prisoners with mental illness who are currently incarcerated at DOC facilities. By withholding records, OP&A claims DOC prevents it from effectively investigating current prison conditions (Robbins v. Budke, 739 F. Supp. 1479, 1485 (D. N.M.1990)).
It also claims that DOC's actions violated its First Amendment right to review records as part of its investigation of suspected abuse or neglect of deceased prisoners formerly incarcerated in DOC facilities (Advocacy Ctr. V. Stalder, 128 F. Supp. 2d 358 (M.D. La. 1999)).