Judge awards $1.375 million for inmate suicide at Halawa Correctional Facility

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The estate of a 28-year-old man who killed himself in the state’s largest prison was awarded $1.375 million in damages on Tuesday in a case that demonstrated dangerous lapses in the care that correctional officers provided to mentally ill and suicidal inmates.

The state admitted liability without raising any defense in the case of Joseph O’Malley, who hanged himself in an “observation room” of the medical unit at Halawa Correctional Facility on July 27, 2017.

An expert testified in the case that the solitary confinement imposed on suicidal inmates at the time was comparable to solitary confinement, which is known to worsen the symptoms suffered by mentally ill inmates.

The lawsuit was filed by O’Malley’s adoptive father, Honolulu attorney Michael O’Malley, who is the personal representative for Joseph O’Malley’s estate. Circuit Court Judge John Tonaki set the amount of the award after an online trial in January and February.

Michael O’Malley, center, with a photo of his son Joseph O’Malley and members of his legal team, including Thomas Otake, left, and Michael Livingston. Michael O’Malley said he plans to push for reforms in the way the prison system deals with mentally ill and suicidal inmates.

In the 10 months before his death, Joseph O’Malley was placed on suicide watch seven times in Halawa, including at least five times for self-harm, once when he reported voices telling him to suicide and once when he attempted to hang himself, according to the ruling in the case.

O’Malley was charged with misconduct in early July for cutting his wrist with a disassembled nail clipper, and prison officials responded by sentencing him to 60 days in the Special Handling Unit of the city. jail.

He was placed in solitary confinement and kept in a solitary confinement cell called an “observation room” in Halawa Infirmary, where he eventually hung himself from the bars of his cell window, according to the ruling. of righteousness.

Michael Livingston, one of the attorneys who sued the state on behalf of the O’Malley estate, said the Department of Public Safety has policies and procedures that reflect best practices for caring for suicidal inmates, but that these procedures were basically ignored by Halawa staff.

In fact, to a “shocking” degree, Halawa staff who were interviewed in the case were unaware of the prison policies and procedures they were expected to follow, he said.

Michael O’Malley told reporters on Wednesday that he met with the Honolulu medical examiner as part of his investigation in the weeks following his son’s death, and said she told him, “You seem to be able to do something about it. Go get them. I’m sick of them sending me bodies from Halawa.

“We wanted to try and do something to make sure this didn’t happen to any other family,” O’Malley said. “Joey was a wonderful son. He was loving, he was funny, he was an animal rescuer, he was kolohe (playful), he was my adopted son.

Joseph suffered from a serious mental illness that worsened in adulthood, but “it wasn’t his fault any more than having a broken arm is anyone’s fault,” said Michael O’Malley. “He wasn’t a disposable kid. He mattered. Nobody is, nobody’s a disposable person.

Joseph was arrested for second-degree robbery in 2009 for robbing a taxi driver with a replica handgun, failed probation, and was entangled in the criminal justice system from then on. He also spent three extended periods at Hawaii State Hospital.

He was sent to Oahu Community Correctional Center in 2015 and to Halawa in 2016 when his probation was revoked.

Otake said the O’Malley family’s legal team identified a range of policy violations at the prison and said Joseph should have been transferred to a medical facility for treatment instead of being held at the prison. Halawa.

The state has a policy that requires that if a person is so mentally ill that they cannot be appropriately cared for in prison, they must be transferred, Otake said.

“What was shocking was that we learned that, the people we spoke to, they never necessarily knew about this policy, or remembered that it happened once,” Otake said. .

Another prison policy states that when a person with mental illness harms themselves, that person should not be punished for it, Otake said. “There has to be a therapeutic response, and it was clear there was punishment going on, which only made it worse.”

Otake also said expert testimony showed the drugs the prison uses to treat certain mental illnesses are “really outdated.”

Regarding the prison system’s response, Livingston said “we understand that they have already made changes, although they haven’t really been clear about what those changes are.”

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a written statement that the department “has a strong policy for the care and custody of inmates with mental illness. “. The Department regularly reviews and updates all policies, including the Inmate Suicide Prevention Policy, which is in accordance to national standards.

Michael O’Malley has said ‘I still have a giant, permanent hole in my heart’ since his son’s death, and he has vowed to push for reforms in the way incarcerated people with mental health issues are processed.

“Joey’s story is not over for me,” he said. “My intention is to stay involved. It doesn’t stop. Whatever little I can do to support, whatever little part I can play to make sure we get the reform that is needed, I don’t I’m not leaving. This is just the beginning for me.”

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