LANSING — State prison officials recklessly ignored clear warning signs of a mentally ill prisoner’s pending suicide at Michigan’s only women’s prison and obstructed a Michigan State Police investigation to hide their misconduct and indifference, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Detroit.
Janika Edmond, 25, who had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, hanged herself in a shower at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti on Nov. 2, 2015, after prison video shows corrections officers placed a bet on whether she would become suicidal and ignored audible choking sounds coming from the shower area, the lawsuit alleges.
The prison video also shows that Edmond had requested a suicide prevention vest, known in prison slang as a "bam bam," on the afternoon she hanged herself, but she was not provided one, according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 17 and assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland.
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, declined to comment Tuesday. "The department does not comment on pending lawsuits," he said.
Two corrections employees were fired after the incident and one of them, Dianna Callahan, 47, was charged in December with involuntary manslaughter and willful neglect of duty. Callahan, who was a corrections officer, is scheduled for a preliminary examination in April. The other employee, counselor Kory Moore, has not been charged and was reinstated at the Corrections Department following arbitration.
The case remains under investigation, said Washtenaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steven Hiller.
According to the lawsuit, Edmond had previously attempted suicide six times since arriving at Women's Huron Valley in 2013, typically by trying to hang herself or by wrapping something tightly around her neck. Despite that, on the day of her death, she was allowed in a shower area without adequate supervision and without removing all of her clothing, the suit alleges.
When Edmond asked for a "bam bam" and said she should kill herself, Callahan yelled to her coworkers: "Somebody owes me lunch!" and "as verified by the MDOC video ... pumped her fist three times into the air with her thumb up while nodding her head," the lawsuit alleges.
William Hatchett, the Pontiac attorney representing Callahan, declined to comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing criminal case.
"Upon information and belief, Callahan made a bet with Moore that Edmond would become suicidal," according to the lawsuit.
Moore could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
About three minutes after the fist pump, and again six and seven minutes later, "chocking sounds can be heard coming from the shower/module area," but Callahan and other officers on duty failed to respond by checking on Edmond, the suit alleges.
About 20 minutes after Edmond asked for the suicide prevention vest, an officer entered the shower area and found that Edmond had hanged herself with her bra, the lawsuit alleges. She was pronounced dead nine days later in the hospital.
"Edmond's death is a direct result of defendants' explicit disregard of MDOC policy, gross negligence and deliberate indifference to Edmond's health and welfare," the lawsuit alleges.
"Defendants' failure to properly treat Edmond's mental illness and its actions in punishing her because of it, exacerbated her mental difficulties .... and caused her suicide."
The suit names as defendants the department and 14 current or former prison officials, including Warden Anthony Stewart. It alleges violation of Edmond's constitutional rights, failure to train and supervise, and failure to make accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The suit was brought on Edmond's behalf by her aunt, Sheila Clarke of Adrian, who is represented by attorneys Cary McGehee of Royal Oak and David Steingold of Detroit.
"Notwithstanding the obvious criminal implications," and contrary to department policy, prison officials did not promptly notify the Michigan State Police about Edmond's hanging, the suit alleges. The MSP found out on Nov. 11, when contacted by the county medical examiner, who was unable to get the information he needed from the prison to complete an autopsy, the suit alleges.
Prison officials "intentionally engaged in behavior intended to obstruct the MSP investigation," by failing to promptly provide the police and medical examiner with the "critical incident report," by failing to preserve a potential crime scene and evidence, and by "refusing to cooperate with the MSP's efforts to obtain evidence, requiring it to obtain a search warrant."
About 45 minutes after Edmond was transported to the hospital, her mother, Christina Edmond, arrived at the prison to visit Edmond, the lawsuit alleges. She waited for more than an hour and "at no time did any MDOC staff notify her that her daughter had just attempted suicide and had been transported to the hospital," the suit alleges. "Instead, Ms. Edmond was told to go home because her daughter was not receiving visitors."
Not until the next day did the prison notify Edmond's family about what happened and "her precarious state" at the hospital, preventing Edmond's family from spending some of her last hours with her, the suit alleges.
Though Gautz declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, the department has said previously that Edmond chose not to list her mother and other biological family members on her emergency contact list and the department respected her wish about who to notify in the event of an emergency.
Detroit Free Press