Treatment of Mentally Ill Individuals in Custodial Settings: Eighth Amendment

Failure to follow national suicide screening prevention standards with prisoner who later commits suicide presents colorable eighth amendment claim that survives summary judgment motion

Barkes v. First Corr. Med., Inc., 766 F.3d 307 (3d Cir. 2014)

After Christopher Barkes committed suicide while being held at a correctional facility in Delaware, his wife and children brought a § 1983 suit against the commissioner of the state department of corrections (“DOC”), the warden, and the private company with whom the DOC contracted to provided medical services to the prison (“FCM”) alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment of the federal Constitution.

When Barkes was arrested in November, 2004, he underwent a medical intake screening procedure conducted by a licensed nurse employed by LCM, the private contractor hired to provide medical services to the prison. The procedure involved (1) a self-report intake form that included questions about suicidal ideation, (2) screening for seventeen suicide risk factors, and (3) a standard medical intake form with questions about “altered mental status ... or abnormal conduct.” Barkes indicated that he had attempted suicide in 2003, but made no mention of three other attempts (one in 1997 and two in 2004) and checked only two of the seventeen suicide screening factors (eight were required to initiate suicide prevention measures). Finally, the licensed practical nurse who conducted the evaluation reported that Barkes showed no signs of either altered mental status or abnormal conduct. Barkes did, however, place a call to his wife that evening and express his intention to kill himself, but his wife did not inform the DOC. The next morning, Barkes was observed lying on his bed in his cell at 10:45, 10:50, and 11:00 a.m. When an officer came to deliver his lunch at 11:35 a.m., Barkes had hanged himself with a bed sheet.

The Third Circuit held (1) for purposes of determining whether the warden and DOC commissioner were entitled to qualified immunity, Barkes’ constitutional right to “proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention tools” was clearly established at the time of his suicide; (2) that summary judgment was inappropriate given evidence that “FCM's policies and procedures in place at the time of Barkes's suicide created an unreasonable risk of a constitutional deprivation;” and (3) that a reasonable jury could have found that Barkes’ suicide was caused by the DOC’s failure to supervise FCM. The second holding was based on evidence of the DOC’s awareness that “FCM's suicide prevention screening practices were not in compliance with [National Commission on Correctional Health Care] standards, as required by their contract with the DOC.” The Third Circuit reached its third holding despite the fact that Barkes did not self-report any suicidal ideation or exhibit any suicidal behavior because, in the court’s view, “had Appellants properly supervised FCM and ensured compliance with the contract, Barkes's answers during his screening would have resulted in additional preventive measures being taken.”

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 1