Shortly after 2 p.m. on a Monday in November 2015, an inmate in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, a sprawling prison in Ypsilanti, Mich., cried out that she “wants Bam Bam,” slang for an anti-suicide smock.
Janika Edmond of Adrian, Mich., knew she posed a danger to herself. The 25-year-old had been in this position before. Beset by major depressive and mood disorders, she had attempted suicide on numerous occasions while incarcerated, according to court filings. Several months earlier, the inmate, with closely cropped hair and the words “Beautiful Disaster” tattooed on her chest, had asked to be put on suicide precaution for her own safety.
Her latest cry for help was issued from a shower area where she had been stationed while waiting to be placed in an isolated cell. At least a dozen correctional officers were in earshot of the prisoner, lawyers allege. She was on mental health outpatient status at the time. None came to her aid.
Instead, one appeared to celebrate the inmate’s anguished appeal, according to a civil complaint reviewed by The Washington Post.
“Somebody owes me lunch!” Dianna Callahan, a prison guard, gloated, according to the legal filing, which cites video records maintained by the Michigan Department of Corrections.
The guard raised her fist into the air, pumping it three times and flashing a thumbs-up sign. She repeated, “Somebody owes me lunch!”
Now, the state owes Edmond’s family $860,000, as part of a settlement agreement in a wrongful-death lawsuit that arose from the episode. The settlement was approved last week by Judge Robert H. Cleland of the U.S. District Court in Detroit.
“It’s horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible,” an attorney for Edmond’s family, David Steingold, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s a catastrophe that should never have happened if the prison officials had just done their jobs.”
But evidence from the scene suggests officials had different incentives. One minute after Callahan’s celebratory gesture, she engaged another prison official in talk of a Subway sandwich — her prize, Steingold observes, for winning a bet among the correctional officers about whether the notoriously volatile inmate would again become suicidal.
Two minutes later, choking sounds emanated from the shower area. The noises continued for several minutes, and no one intervened, as detailed in the complaint, which describes a timeline confirmed by a transcription of video footage prepared by the Michigan State Police and obtained by MLive.com.
Nearly 20 minutes after she had first called for help, Edmond was discovered lying in the shower. She had a bra around her neck.
She had entered the prison in 2013 for a probation violation stemming from charges of assault with a dangerous weapon. She was scheduled to be released as early as April 2016, according to the federal lawsuit.
Prison staff administered CPR and applied an automated external defibrillator. Paramedics arrived and discovered that she still had a pulse. They transported her about 10 miles to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where the inmate’s mother was turned away, according to the complaint, told that Edmond could not receive visitors. It took the Michigan Department of Corrections 24 hours to alert family members to the inmate’s suicide attempt, the filing maintains.
Edmond was declared brain dead on Nov. 6, 2015, four days after being transported to the hospital. She was pronounced dead five days after that.
The complaint asserts that the failure of the correctional facility to “properly treat Edmond’s mental illness and its actions in discriminating against her and punishing her because of it, exacerbated her mental difficulties, including her suicidal ideations, and caused her suicide.”
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections declined to comment on the settlement.
Suicides accounted for 7 percent of all deaths in state prisons in 2014, representing the largest share observed since 2001, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. Female prisoners are at least nine times as likely to die by suicide as is the general female population, according to a 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed Lancet journal.
Meanwhile, how little about such episodes is clarified by official accounts was made stark earlier this month with the release of cellphone footage recorded by Sandra Bland in July 2015, before she died by suicide in a Texas jail. The fresh insight into her interaction with a Texas state trooper led her family to renew its call for accountability. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress.)
Callahan was suspended in the days after the incident inside the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, which is the only prison in the state that houses women. She was fired the following spring. The officer with whom she had allegedly spoken about a Subway sandwich, Kory Moore, was also fired, but she was later reinstated after arbitration. Moore, who was supervising Callahan as resident unit manager at the time of Edmond’s suicide, ultimately left her position, MLive.com reported.
According to the news outlet, it was not until state officials read media reports about the terminations that they opened an investigation into the circumstances of the suicide. According to the complaint, state police first learned of the episode from a county medical examiner, who contacted a state trooper seeking information that he was unable to obtain from the prison.
The corrections agency later acknowledged it should have notified Michigan State Police more quickly. It also pledged to clarify its policies about when an inmate death requires contacting the police.
Unambiguous, however, were policies obliging staff to respond immediately to warnings of suicidal behavior by inmates, as the complaint notes. “When a mental health emergency is suspected, custody staff shall place the prisoner in an observation room,” one directive states. Another declares, “If a prisoner engages in suicidal or self-injurious behavior which is life threatening, staff shall immediately respond.”
“At no time relevant hereto,” the civil complaint alleges, “did any MDOC staff member immediately respond to Edmond’s life threatening suicidal behavior.”
Callahan pleaded no contest last year to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, avoiding a trial.
In addition to the local criminal case, the episode spawned the federal lawsuit, first filed in February 2017, as well as a similar suit, filed that April, in the county court system.
The federal suit, a final version of which was filed in June of last year, named the Michigan Department of Corrections and 12 of its current and former employees as defendants. It sought damages for loss of “love, society and companionship,” among other deprivations, on behalf of Sheila Clarke, Edmond’s aunt and the representative of her estate.
Ultimately, she settled for $860,000. Some of that sum will cover legal fees and other costs. What remains of the settlement, nearly $550,000, will be split evenly between Edmond’s adult siblings, Jacob Christopher Edmond and Cazz Vinson Jr.
The money is insufficient to salve their loss, Steingold said. Family members, who were not immediately told of Edmond’s condition, arrived at the hospital to “witness doctors pulling the plug on her,” he said.
She knew she needed help, the attorney said. She sought it out. Instead of coming to her assistance, however, the officer charged with her protection “ordered her winnings.”
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