ALBANY - A judge has refused to order a state commission that monitors conditions at county jails to rewrite its final report on the suicide of an inmate at the behest of Ontario County officials who argued, in part, that the findings would make it harder to defend themselves against a civil suit filed by the prisoner’s widow.
The Commission of Correction acted within the powers given it by state law when it adopted the report on the 2009 suicide of Bruce Morgan in the Ontario County Correctional Facility in Canandaigua, Acting Supreme Court Justice Richard Platkin in Albany (See Profile) held in Ontario County v. Harrison-Ross, 2898-11.
The commission’s Medical Review Board is charged by law with investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of any inmate at a correctional facility in New York state and to make recommendations, when appropriate, “to prevent the recurrence of such deaths to the commission and the administrator of the appropriate correctional facility.”
Ontario County officials had been seeking since the commission sent them a preliminary report on Morgan’s suicide in September 2010 to have changes made to the findings, which the county said in its complaint were “invalid and unenforceable.”
The county alleged that the 11-page report contained “numerous allegations of wrongdoing and legal conclusions that are questions for determination only by courts of law.”
The commission adopted the report over the county’s objections in December 2010.
Platkin said there was no proof that the panel’s findings were “arbitrary, capricious or lacking a rational basis.”
He wrote, “The statutory power and duty of the Board and Commission to determine the cause of an inmate’s death and to report thereupon necessarily carries with it the jurisdiction to render opinions as to whether lack of compliance with established laws, rules, regulations, minimum standards promulgated by the Commission, police or procedures played a part in bringing about such death.”
The impact of its conclusions on liability for future litigation based on inmates’ deaths should not be the commission’s concern, the judge concluded.
“The fact that defendants’ opinions regarding the factors that caused an inmate’s death and their recommendations for reform may have collateral consequences in a civil litigation does not and cannot deprive the Commission and Board of its statutory jurisdiction,” Platkin wrote. “Nor does it entitle plaintiffs to compel the Commission and Board to rewrite its Final Report so as to remove criticism of the County for failing to provide mental health diagnosis, evaluation and treatment services” to Morgan.
Morgan, 43, hung himself in his cell in the early morning hours of Christmas Day 2009.
“Despite nearly constant complaints of mental disorder symptoms while incarcerated, he received no mental health diagnosis, evaluation or treatment due to negligent supervision of non-clinical mental health care providers and a failure to observe, i.e., constraints of licensure,” the commission’s report stated.
The commission said jail personnel also violated commission standards because they did not keep records of the discovery of Morgan’s body and the response of staff, including efforts to revive him. The nursing staff at the jail also did not follow the facility’s own rules on inmate suicide prevention, the commission concluded.
The report also cited interviews with Morgan’s wife and guards at the jail who had contact with Morgan before his death that did not indicate he was suicidal.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero and other county officials said the county has subsequently adopted the recommendations made by the commission, Platkin noted in his ruling.
Assistant Ontario County Michael Reinhard represented the county. He declined to comment on the ruling, citing a pending lawsuit against the county.
Assistant Attorney General Adele Taylor Scott argued for the defendants, including Dr. Phyllis Harrison-Ross, a commissioner on the Commission of Correction and chairwoman of the Medical Review Board.
“The commission is pleased that the court has confirmed the responsibility of the Medical Review Board to thoroughly investigate inmate deaths and to make findings and recommendations on inmate health care as warranted,” Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement.
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