Lawsuit: Mental health care at prison lax

Grandmother of woman who committed suicide suing prison, county and PrimeCare Medical

A lawsuit filed by the grandmother of a Blair County Prison inmate who took her life 16 months ago has been transferred to the U.S. District Court in Johnstown because it charges prison personnel violated federal law by failing to provide adequate mental health treatment.

Samantha Rae Beckwith was 23 when a female corrections officer found her asphyxiated in her cell on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2016.

The officer found the mother of two young children with a bedsheet around her neck. Two officers entered the cell and administered CPR.

According to the lawsuit filed by Pittsburgh attorney George M. Kontos, Beckwith was declared dead at 4:25 p.m. or 27 minutes after being found.

Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross ruled the death a suicide.

Deborah A. Beckwith of Altoona, Samantha’s grandmother and administratrix of her estate, brought the lawsuit in Blair County Court in an effort to recover damages for the benefit of Samantha’s two young children.

Blair County, its prison and the company that provides medical care for the inmates, PrimeCare Medical Inc. of Harrisburg, were named as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges lax mental health care at the prison.

Samantha Beckwith suffered from manic-depressive/bipolar disorder and required daily medication.

“If she did not receive her medication, (she) would engage in severe erratic behavior, and, on occasion, become suicidal,” the lawsuit stated.

The lawsuit contends that Beckwith’s condition was well-known in the prison because over a four-year period she had been an inmate on 10 occasions and the prison had prepared 20 reports concerning her issues, including medical issues.

Prison personnel, it is charged, knew of her need for medication and medical assistance.

However, when admitted to the prison in late October 2016 for parole violation and to await a preliminary hearing on the DUI charges, prison personnel failed to provide her with the necessary medication.

It is contended she told personnel that she intended to commit suicide, and although she was placed on suicide watch, it was only for a short period of time.

The lawsuit lists 12 defective policies or procedures followed by the prison that allegedly led to Beckwith’s death, including a policy of failing to require that an inmate receive care from “competent medical professionals.”

The lawsuit contended prison personnel had inadequate training on how to properly supervise inmates with medical needs or health problems and failed to train correctional officers to recognize serious medical conditions and the need to place an inmate on “suicide watch.”

The lawsuit charged that “Ms. Beckwith’s substantive right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment prior to adjudication without due process of law … were violated.”

The Beckwith family is asking damages for the Samantha’s pain, suffering and mental anguish and her loss of earning capacity and income.

PrimeCare is being sued for similar reasons and also for professional negligence, that includes failing: to assess Beckwith’s medication needs; to ensure she was placed on suicide watch; and to ascertain her diagnosis and need for medical attention.

The lawsuit was filed in the Blair County Court but was moved to the U.S. District Court on Friday with the explanation by the county’s Pittsburgh attorney Suzanne B. Merrick that the case involves alleged violations of Beckwith’s Eighth and 14th Amendment rights.

Camp Hill attorney John Ninosky, representing Prime­Care, consented to moving the case to federal court.

The chairman of the Blair County Prison Board, Judge Daniel J. Milliron, said he was unaware of the recent lawsuit but expressed sorrow at Beckwith’s death, noting he remembers her from court.

Milliron said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but he pointed out that he, as prison board chairman, days ago received a report from the Pennsylvania Depart­ment of Corrections concerning the operation of the county prison and a plethora of recommendations on how to improve it.

The judge said he cannot release the report until he has permission from DOC but stated, “It does talk about mental health and PrimeCare.”

A majority of the section of the report dealing with the prison’s medical program is about mental health, he said.

The report will be discussed at next week’s prison board meeting.

The report is revealing, Milliron said.

“We asked them (DOC) to take us apart. They granted my wish,” he said.

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