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Family Files Lawsuit After Jail Suicide

Santa Fe The New Mexican
Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Attorneys for the family of a man who committed suicide inside the Santa Fe County jail 18 months ago filed a federal lawsuit alleging the county, private-prison operator, medical-services subcontractor, county contract monitor and former and current jail employees are to blame for the man’s death.

The lawsuit revisits issues regarding the death of 27-year-old Tyson Johnson that were raised in a jail-audit released by the federal Department of Justice this spring.

Johnson, a former Army serviceman and father of two with no criminal history, was booked into the jail on assault and other charges on Dec. 29, 2001. While on so-called suicide watch, Johnson hanged himself from a sprinkler head with a jail-issued blanket on Jan. 13, 2001.

El Prado attorneys Mariel Nanasi and Jeffrey Haas say prison officials and county supervisors could have prevented Johnson’s tragic end, but they did not.

“They had multiple opportunities to intervene and save his life. The lawsuit sets forth umpteen times where completely different corrections officers and medical personnel could have saved his life, but they didn’t. They had so many opportunities,” Nanasi said.

The 6-count civil lawsuit filed Monday in Santa Fe says the defendants “acted with reckless and callous indifference to Johnson’s substantial risk of suicide,” failed to adequately assess or treat his mental condition and did not follow established policies for dealing with suicidal inmates. It also alleges the policies that were in place were inadequate.

According to the lawsuit and the justice-department report, Johnson started threatening to kill himself shortly after his arrival at the jail.

Two days later, Johnson wrote a note he labeled a “Last Will and Testament,” and was admitted to the jail’s medical unit. Officials later placed him in the general-population area of the prison and repeatedly refused to make an appointment for him with a mental health professional, according to the lawsuit.

On January 11, 2002, Johnson used a razor — issued to general population inmates by jail officials — to slice his throat and wrists. He was then placed on “suicide watch” in a small cell in the booking area, the lawsuit said.

That’s where attorneys say the most gross neglect of his mental condition took place.

“Instead of getting him the help he needed, they stuck him this cell that was a death trap,” Haas said as he stood in front of the federal courthouse in Santa Fe shortly after filing the lawsuit.

“No one took any action regarding ... his explicit cries for help,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also says Johnson was taunted by jail guards and by a nurse who worked for Physicians Network Association, a subcontractor that provides medical and mental-health services at the jail. When Johnson threatened to kill himself again on the morning he died, the nurse reportedly said, “Let him,” the lawsuit states.

Haas later visited the cell — which MTC says it no longer uses for suicide watch — and agreed with its assessment in the Department of Justice report.

The report, based on an inspection in May 2002, said the cell was not an appropriate location for housing suicidal inmates.

According to MTC’s guidelines for monitoring inmates who have been identified as suicide risks, a guard was to physically observe the inmate every 10 minutes. But, according to the lawsuit, a log provided to guards for the purpose of recording the so-called suicide watch had spaces for observations every 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, logs from the night of Johnson’s death show he was observed only three times in a 15-hour period, the lawsuit and Department of Justice report say.

The lawsuit seeks individual damages against four MTC employees who, according to Maj. David Osuna, no longer work at the jail. They are former Warden Cody Graham, who was transferred from the jail in March, then fired from his new job in McKinley County in July; former Maj. Greg Lee, who left the jail at the same time as Graham; former Lt. Ben Archuleta and former Capt. Vernon Quintana.

Two other MTC employees named in the case — Lt. Robert Oakley and Corrections Officer Joseph R. Moreno — continue to work at the jail, Osuna said.

The lawsuit also lists as defendants three employees of Physicians Network Association of Lubbock, Texas: Sheila Turner, a nurse, Thomas Welter, a clinician; and a director of medial health-care identified as John Doe I.

Trey Farthing, PNA operations vice president, said Welter and Turner are no longer employed by the company.

Farthing said PNA was aware that Johnson’s family intended to file a lawsuit, but had not seen a copy. He referred further questions to company Senior Vice President Jean Brock.

Brock said PNA, which is incorrectly identified as “Physicians Network Associates” in the lawsuit, does not comment on pending litigation.

Santa Fe County and county Correctional Services Manager Greg Parrish are also listed as defendants, although Parrish’s name is spelled incorrectly on the filing.

County Attorney Steve Ross did not immediately return a phone message from The New Mexican.

An MTC spokesman could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Johnson, who worked in Albuquerque before his arrest, was a bread-winner for his two children, now ages 9 and 5, and for his mother, who lives in Albuquerque, the lawsuit says.

At the time of his death, MTC had a three-page policy on suicide prevention. The current policy, adopted in June, is three times longer and much more detailed

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