Pennsylvania Prison Contractor $7MM Settlement re: Mentally Ill Woman on Suicide in Confinement Lawsuit

CBS News

In November 2017, the estate of Janene Wallace reached a $7 million legal settlement with Community Education Centers (CEC), a for-profit company that manages prisons, to resolve allegations that George W. Hill Correctional Facility staff, “caused her death and failed to further prevent her death by placing her in solitary with a guard who taunted her and told her to kill herself,” according to a spokesperson for the Wallace estate.

Pennsylvania Prison Contractor $7MM Settlement re: Mentally Ill Woman on Suicide in Confinement Lawsuit

CBS reports that Wallace was first sent to the Delaware County (PA) correctional facility, managed by CEC, in 2013 after being convicted on terroristic threat charges. The woman, who suffered from paranoia since her twenties, had threatened a high school acquaintance over the phone.

She was released on probation, but was returned to the facility in 2015, after she missed a mandatory appointment.

Back at the prison, Wallace, who was by now 35, displayed irrational behavior, but instead of receiving mental health care, she was kept in confinement for 52 days, until she hanged herself. 

Wallace’s last day of life was May 26th, 2015. Her usual routine included spending over 23 hours inside her cell every day, with barely one hour for exercise. On that particular day, which fell on a holiday weekend, Janene’s mental condition was taking a turn for the worse.

She had spent over 85 hours locked in her cell. According to witnesses, guards would throw food at her and “treated Ms. Wallace like a dog,” a spokesperson for the plaintiffs told CBS. At some point, Janene had an argument with one of the guards.

When she announced that she was going to choke herself, the guard said, “go ahead,” and then took a lunch break. At that point, Janene had covered her cell’s windows, and the guard did not see fit to check on her.

When the guard returned from her break, Janene was already dead. She had, as she had threatened to do, hanged herself.  

 “Janene was very creative, very intelligent and beautiful,” the victim’s mother said at a press conference held to announce the settlement,“She was a different person when she was younger, until the mental illness hit her.” 

Although Janene suffered from severe paranoia, she had never shown any violent behavior. The combination of confinement with paranoia probably threw her over the edge.

Under US laws, she had a right to adequate mental health care while incarcerated. Instead of providing it, prison staff contributed to her death by ignoring her needs and, ultimately, instigating her suicide. Moreover, Janene should have been on suicide watch after making such a statement.

When Janene died, the prison contractor Community Education Centers did not carry out an internal investigation. Instead, statements from other inmates who had witnessed the events were destroyed, and the company never informed the government about the circumstances of Janene’s death.

The guard who prompted Janene to commit suicide was fired, but the victim’s family is not satisfied with either that or the monetary settlement; they are committed to pushing for reform. “We don’t want another family to go through what we went through,” Janene’s mother said during the press conference.

Community Education Centers has been acquired by The Geo Group, which now manages the prison. According to Delaware County Pennsylvania sources, the contractor is currently revising its inmate confinement policies, especially relating to mental health assessment and intervention. 

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