Prisons have their share of killings and suicides. Most homicides are inmate on inmate events, but an Erie County, New York sheriff and his deputies stand accused by a commission investigating a female inmate’s death of homicide by medical neglect.
India Cummings, 27, died in February 2016 after refusing food, water, and medications, soiling herself and sleeping naked on the floor rather than in her bunk. Instead of putting her in one of the Erie County Holding Center’s psychiatric beds, guards watched her as she continued to deteriorate. After she suffered cardiac arrest in her cell, Cummings was moved to Buffalo General Hospital, where she later died from renal failure.
Cummings was arrested by Lackawanna Police after they were called about a mental health issue with a disorderly person, and could not raise the $15,000 bail. The Commission of Correction Medical Review Board found "that the medical and mental health care provided to Cummings by Erie County during her course of incarceration - and her care, custody, and safekeeping by Erie County Sheriff deputies were so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."
This was the first time the review board had ever stated a death should be ruled a homicide due to neglect. However, the Erie County Medical Examiner Office (“ECMEO”) is the only entity that may change the cause of the death, and a representative said the ECMEO would not do so unless it received “substantial new information.” Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, however, said the 33-page statement issued by the board, which consists of physicians and attorneys, was an “opinion.”
As the Buffalo News states, “Howard often turns on the commission when it blames him or his staff in high-profile events.” It cited a 2006 case in which an inmate escaped from the holding facility and subsequently killed a state trooper, and when staff was blamed for the 2012 killing of an inmate.
Deputies allegedly placed a spit mask around the inmate’s neck, which he chewed through, and then put a pillowcase over his head. When the man went into cardiac arrest, the deputies did not seek medical help.
During a 2017 deposition on the inmate homicide, Howard replied “I don’t know” to 68 of the questions posed to him. Most of these questions centered on jail management training. Howard did say he did not develop the jail’s training program curriculum but said he didn’t know who did create it. Howard did not know whether suicide prevention or mental health topics were covered in the jail training program. Although the entrance to the holding center is just a few feet away from his office, Howard said he doesn’t enter the facility more than once per month.
In Wisconsin, the estate of a woman who killed herself immediately upon release from jail is suing Brown County and its sheriff, as well as healthcare workers at the jail.
Ruth Freiwald, 51, was in custody after a failed suicide attempt – she drove her car into the path of a truck – and a history of PTSD, previous suicide attempts, depression, and mental illness. Freiwald was on various medications for her emotional and mental health issues, but her medications were taken from her by jail authorities under their controlled substances ban. However, the sentencing court had explicitly stated that Freiwald must take all prescribed medications. She requested her medications while incarcerated, but received no response.
Withdrawal from some of her medications could cause suicidal thoughts, according to the lawsuit. Although she had a history of attempted suicide and her crime was a result of such an attempt, the jail did not classify Freiwald as a suicide risk. Her sentence allowed her to attend classes, and that was where she was supposedly heading on November 2, 2016.
Instead, she walked in front of a truck and died a few hours later from her injuries. A suicide note was later found. The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff and jail did not adequately train personnel “to ensure safety and medical well-being of inmates.” It claims the defendants’ actions violated Freiwald’s due process rights and subjected her to mental stress and physical pain leading to her death.
For more information, visit our prison inmate abuse information page. Have specific questions or want to know if you have a case for monetary damages? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 866.836.4684.
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