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Judge faults federal prison system after suicide of Great Falls man

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
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A federal judge on Friday harshly criticized federal prison officials for failing to take in and treat a man who died by suicide earlier this year.

"We can't let this happen again," Judge T.S. Ellis III said in Alexandria federal court, during an unusual hearing held after the defendant's death. Whatever crimes people in custody may have committed, he said, they "are human beings, and we need to treat them as human beings."

Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails, according to Justice Department statistics; inmates are twice as likely as people outside the system to die by their own hand. While the suicide rate is lower in state and federal prisons, those deaths have been rising.

Christopher Lapp, a 62-year-old nuclear engineer from Great Falls, Va., spent a year in psychological treatment at a federal prison in North Carolina after his arrest for armed robbery and carjacking. He was then declared competent and pleaded guilty to those crimes.

Ellis had ordered Lapp back to the prison for further care, but officials said they could not take him unless he was deemed incompetent again or required a new psychiatric evaluation. So Lapp went to the Alexandria jail, where, according to court records and testimony, he stopped taking his antipsychotic medication and deteriorated. He died May 18.

“Dr. Lapp’s suicide is a tragedy that should not be repeated,” Ellis said Friday. “I want to know how the ball was dropped.”

Defense attorney Joseph Flood had informed the court of the bureaucratic hurdles keeping his client in the jail and his concerns about the mental health treatment there about three weeks before Lapp’s death. Ellis said in court that “it’s my fault . . . I didn’t know” about the issue “until the suicide.”

But he put most of the blame on the federal prison system for not following his directive.

“If I issue an order, you must obey it,” he told prison officials who participated in the hearing. “Nobody in the Bureau of Prisons should ever decide they don’t want to obey my order because they think it violates the law. I trump their view of the law.”

The judge also expressed anger that none of Lapp’s medical files were turned over to the jail.

Dean Inouye, a psychiatrist working in the Alexandria jail, said in court that Lapp “was simply denying everything” regarding his mental health issues. George McAndrews, an attorney for the Alexandria Department of Community & Human Services, said Lapp told Inouye “he didn’t want any more . . . medication.”

Inouye agreed with the judge that it would have been helpful to know what treatment Lapp had received in the prison. But most of his comments to the judge about the treatment Lapp got in jail were made during a portion of the hearing closed to the public.

A Bureau of Prisons attorney, who participated in the hearing by phone, said the facility does not accept individuals for ongoing care. The bureau declined to comment after the hearing.

Lapp’s conviction was not yet final when he died because he was awaiting sentencing. The charges were dropped after his death.

Alexandria jail officials conducted a review of Lapp’s death and concluded that “there were no events, there were no signs that were presented to any of the jail staff” that he was suicidal, attorney Alexander Francuzenko told the court. “We feel it is a tragedy too.”

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