AN ATTORNEY representing a prisoner at a maximum security institution in Shirley says her client informed a corrections officer on January 2 that he was contemplating suicide and was told, “Go ahead, kill yourself.”
The attorney, Patty DeJuneas, said her client, Carl Larocque, had been in medical isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 on December 31. She said Larocque attempted suicide twice by wrapping a sheet around his neck. He rendered himself unconscious during his second try.
“He awoke to a beating and promise he would soon face disciplinary charges for the bother his suicide attempt caused DOC staff,” said DeJuneas in a letter to Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Ron Mariano, US Attorney Andrew Lelling, and advocacy groups for prisoners.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction, which oversees the Souza-Baranowski facility, said it cannot discuss a specific prisoner’s medical issues without multiple waivers. “The DOC considers inmate medical and mental health services critical to our mission and we have continued to work with our medical provider to deliver them safely and appropriately during the pandemic,” said the spokesman.
Laroque, who was incarcerated several years ago for manslaughter, is one of several prisoners at the facility embroiled in a lawsuit with the Department of Correction involving an incident a year ago where prisoners and guards each accused each other of attacking the other during a lockdown.
DeJuneas said her most recent interaction with Larocque was on Saturday, when he complained of continuing pain from COVID-19 and his alleged injuries from guards.
She says she’s been denied video conference calls for a week and a half, which she hoped would have been a way for her to see and document his injuries. “I suspect the video conference has been denied in an effort to cover up the truth,” she said.
A DOC spokesman said that prisoners placed in medical isolation at the direction of clinical staff have continued to have ongoing access to phone calls, showers, personal items, and other privileges, but did not comment on Larocque’s situation.
DeJuneas’s letter came less than two months after Lelling’s office issued a report detailing numerous ways the Department of Correction staff violated the constitutional rights of prisoners with mental illness, including urging some to kill themselves.
The two-year investigation found the DOC and medical provider Wellpath did not have clear policies for dealing with prisoners suffering mental illness, which impacts almost a quarter of the state prison population.
“Security staff do not always know why mental health staff place a prisoner onto mental health watch, or what happened to a prisoner while on mental health watch, which would be important information to monitor once the prisoner returns to his regular housing unit,” said the investigation report.
The report highlighted a 2019 incident at Souza-Baranowski where a prisoner cut himself badly but had to wait 45 minutes for corrections officers to respond and take him to a hospital.
The Justice Department decided to give the DOC two months to adjust its policies to make mental health watches safer or be subject to a lawsuit.
“We are aware of the [DeJuneas] letter and, in light of our recent findings, of the ongoing problems within DOC facilities concerning handling of mentally ill inmates and the use of restrictive housing,” said a spokeswoman for Lelling. “We will review this matter as part of our ongoing negotiations with the state to implement effective reforms in the DOC system.”
Issues around mental health during the pandemic have continued to arise over the course of the pandemic, along with allegations from advocates that distress has increased with the longer stretches of time prisoners spend locked in cells to keep them socially distant.
In a joint statement, Spilka and Mariano said the allegations raised by Dejuneas were disturbing but they could not comment on active litigation. “The mental health of all of the state’s residents has been impacted by the pandemic, and we will continue to consider this fact in our ongoing COVID response,” they continued.
DeJuneas said she was shocked that Spilka and Mariano likened the situation with her client to the mental health issues facing the general public.
“I’m quite sure that people in the community are not told to kill themselves by a person who has complete and total control over their lives, like what happened to Carl,” she said. “Frankly, I’m shocked and disappointed that any such comparison has been drawn, especially on the heels of the Department of Justice’s comprehensive — and damning — report about how DOC handles prisoners experience mental health crises.”
DeJuneas also said no active litigation is ongoing in connection with the attempted suicide by her client. She said her only pending litigation connected with Larocque has to do with the seizure of his legal materials during the January 2020 lockdown. “That case has nothing to do with COVID-19, suicide attempts, or mental health,” she said.