By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for $75,000 after Charles Mealer committed suicide while a patient at the prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards has confirmed.
Edwards, however, said the state is unaware of a “law enforcement proceeding” that a federal agency said is ongoing at the Secure Psychiatric Unit where Mealer died three years ago.
A response to a federal Freedom of Information Act by state Rep. Renny Cushing involving a federal civil rights complaint he lodged against the Department of Corrections two years ago said the documents he was seeking couldn’t be released because of the law enforcement proceeding.
“After consideration of the responsive records, I have determined that access to the documents should be denied…, since disclosure thereof could reasonably be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings,” wrote Tink Cooper, acting chief of the Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts Branch in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Read the letter here from Cooper to Cushing, a Hampton Democrat.
Edwards did say that she checked with Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks, and she, too, had no knowledge of a law enforcement proceeding at the Secure Psychiatric Unit.
“We have no idea what they are doing, if they are looking into something. They clearly received complaints. We’ve seen issues raised by Rep. Cushing and Disability Rights Center,” Edwards said.
The Disability Rights Center launched an investigation earlier this year into the possible role of abuse and neglect in Phillip Borcuk’s death on Dec. 6, 2017. He was being held in the prison unit upstairs from the Secure Psychiatric Unit.
Mealer was 47 when he committed suicide at the Secure Psychiatric Unit of the men’s prison on June 22, 2015. The cause of death was suicide due to acute amitriptyline intoxication, an antidepressant that was prescribed to Mealer, according to the lawsuit filed by Manchester attorney Larry Vogelman on behalf of Mealer’s estate.
Mealer had been transferred to the unit several times since he was sentenced to the prison in 2011 on two counts of felonious sexual assault.
Vogelman said the lawsuit was settled a couple of months ago with the state admitting no wrongdoing. The state did agree to adopt all the policy changes he sought regarding the delivery of medication to patients and inmates, Vogelman said.
They include requiring the person delivering the medication to watch the patient take and swallow the medicine, Vogelman said.
Mealer’s last transfer to the Secure Psychiatric Unit was on April 21, 2015 when he was placed on suicide watch, which means he was to be checked every 15 minutes. The suicide watch was discontinued on June 22, 2015, and Mealer was found dead in his cell three days later, a week after his 47th birthday.
The lawsuit was filed in Merrimack County Superior Court by Renee Mayhew, who identified herself as his twin sister in a GoFundMe page she set up after Mealer’s death. Vogelman said the settlement went to a child of Mealer’s as his only heir.
“I am so sad my twin has died. He went through a lot and we don’t know why he died as we have had autopsy done and waiting on his toxicology reports to come back. … I loved him with all my heart . (N)now he needs to be laid to rest,” Mayhew wrote on the fundraising page, later adding the family had learned how he died.
According to the lawsuit: “The toxicology report showed that Mr. Mealer had a blood level of 620 ng/ml of amitriptyline and 200 ng/ml of nortriptyline at the time of the autopsy.
“Given his prescribed dose, the expected level should have been around 100 ng/ml.”
According to the suit, the state and its employees had a duty to protect Mealer and diagnose and treat him for his “obvious mental health issues” and a duty to use reasonable care in assessing and treating his suicidal risk, preventing him from committing suicide and ensuring that inmates had no access to medications.
“As a result of the (state’s) negligence, Charles Mealer committed suicide,” the suit says.
Vogelman also represents the estate of Phillip Borcuk, an inmate who was a patient in the Residential Treatment Unit, which is upstairs from the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the men’s prison.
The Disability Rights Center is investigating the possible role of abuse and neglect in Borcuk’s death on Dec. 6, 2017, according to a federal lawsuit filed in February arguing that the Department of Corrections wasn’t turning over records involving Borcuk in a timely fashion. A judge ordered the department to turn over records involving Borcuk.
The DRC investigation is also focusing on questions about the adequacy of staffing on the unit and staff use of force and restraint, DRC attorney Andrew Milne previously told InDepthNH.org.
Milne declined comment recently on the status of the investigation.
Borcuk, 34, of Cornish, was admitted from Sullivan County Superior Court into Department of Correction custody in 2012 for charges of operating after being certified as a habitual offender, theft by unauthorized taking and assault by prisoner, according to the department.
After Borcuk’s death, the department issued a news release stating that he was alone in his cell and died due to “self-injurious behavior.”
The Disability Rights Center is a statewide non-profit organization that is federally authorized to investigate possible violations of the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act.
The PAIMI Act authorizes DRC to investigate suspected abuse and neglect of individuals with mental illness and obligates facilities such as prisons to cooperate by promptly producing requested records.