Mom files lawsuit over inmate’s death

JOHNSTOWN – The mother of an inmate at the now-closed State Correctional Institution at Cresson is contending her son committed suicide two years ago because of the poor mental health treatment he received, alleging authorities at the institution showed “deliberate indifference” to his condition, ignored warning signs and denied him proper care.

While the focus of the lawsuit is on the death of James Willett of Lycoming County, it is contended that the lack of care at Cresson was an example of the Department of Corrections’ overall policy toward inmates with mental health conditions that cause them to act out.

The lawsuit, filed by Deborah Willett of Chester, seeks compensatory and punitive damages against more than a dozen named and some unnamed individuals, including top Department of Corrections and SCI Cresson officials, psychologists and others.

Willett was found dead in his cell on the night of March 11, 2012. It was determined he hanged himself with a bed sheet. According to the initial report, Willett was serving a seven- to 14-year sentence for rape by forcible compulsion.

The lawsuit charges that Willett displayed “warning signs” of a deteriorating mental health condition and that he was going to harm himself.

It alleges that his treatment “lacked continuity,” that his requests for help were denied and that outside services were rejected.

His nickname among the staff was “Suicide,” according to the civil lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown.

U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson has submitted the civil charges for review under the court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program.

Steven M. Barth of Pittsburgh, the attorney for Deborah Willett, attached a report of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice to the lawsuit. The report released last year concluded that SCI Cresson isolated inmates with metal health problems, placed them in special units where they were secluded and held in small cells for 23 hours a day and sometimes did not release the inmate for many months or years.

The Justice Department stated in its report, “After carefully reviewing the evidence, we conclude that the manner in which Cresson uses isolation on prisoners with serious mental health illness violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

It went on, “We also conclude that Cresson uses isolation in a way that violates the rights of prisoners with serious mental illness, as well as prisoners with intellectual disabilities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The report stated that the isolation combined with “harsh and punitive living conditions,” and physical force is harmful to the inmates.

To back that up, the Department of Justice reported that over 18 months, two of the three suicides and 14 of the 17 suicide attempts at the prison occurred in the special units where inmates with mental health conditions were placed.

Since the Willett death, Cresson has been closed and many of its staff are now working at the state’s newest prison, the State Correctional Institution at Benner in Centre County.

While DOC does not comment on lawsuits, Susan McNaughton, a corrections spokeswoman, said the Justice Department investigation focused on the time period between January 2012 to June 2013, but since 2011, the department has been working to enhance treatment for the mentally ill in prison.

In a release she said, “The growth of inmate populations with mental illness has been a tremendous challenge for prison systems across the country.”

New treatment units have been developed, and the state has reduced the number of inmates housed in special units.

The department has joined with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop strategies to reduce the segregation of inmates, according to information provided by McNaughton.

The department’s definition of serious mental illness has been revised, and individual treatment plans for inmates are being developed, with the inmate’s participation.

The department also has trained more than 300 inmates to provide counseling and support to other inmates. Officers are being trained in mental health first aid to recognize symptoms of mental illness.

In January, DOC created a psychology office to oversee mental health services.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray can be reached at 946-7468.