LIHUE — Two mothers are suing the Hawaii Department of Public Safety on behalf of their children, over what their lawsuit describes as “repeated and deliberate indifference towards the safety and well-being of inmates with serious mental health issues.”
The lawsuit targets two Oahu facilities, and Hawaii’s eight prisons — including Kauai Community Correctional Center — are all included in the complaint.
Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit filed last week, Donna Opulento and Althea Mikaele, claim inadequacies in mental health care led to the July 2017 suicide death of Women’s Community Correctional Center inmate and Oluplento’s daughter Jessica Fortson. Opulento alleges Fortson was denied a mental health evaluation after an August 2016 suicide attempt.
Fortson, according to the complaint, had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, along with a number of other mental ailments, and was continually denied the opportunity to consult a mental health professional about her condition.
The lawsuit also alleges inadequacies also triggered a suicide attempt by Oahu Community Correctional Center inmate and Mikaele’s son Frank Hampp in March 2018. Hampp is now a paraplegic as a result of that attempt. The lawsuit alleges Hampp wasn’t adequately treated for his bipolar disorder.
Plaintiffs also claim that DPS doesn’t have enough mental health resources and that staff is plagued by a “practice of inappropriately delaying and refusing to provide basic mental health treatments,” allowing inmates’ mental illnesses to progress unchecked and “leading to hallucinations, delusions, and an increased risk of self-harm and suicide.”
On Kauai, the complaint says KCCC is among the four outer-island correctional facilities that do not offer 24-hour medical coverage and have no psychiatrists or mental health nurses on staff.
“Together, this means that there are periods of time at night and over the weekend when mentally ill inmates have no emergency options at all,” the lawsuit says, describing conditions at KCCC and other outer-island facilities, which it further claims have not even been visited by an appropriately-trained mental health nurse since 2015, when a long period of federal oversight ended.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Hawaii in 2008 after finding DPS officials “exhibited deliberate indifference to the mental health needs,” of inmates on Oahu. It would take the state seven years to resolve the DOJ’s concerns.
A DPS spokesperson declined to comment on the matter specifically but did provide statistics refuting the allegations of increased risk of suicide among the inmate population.
“We are not seeing an increase in suicides,” Toni Schwartz, a DPS public information officer, wrote in an email Monday. “In fact, we have seen a substantial decrease.”
According to the figures provided by Schwartz, the number of inmates have committed suicide have dropped steadily over the past several years, from six in 2016, to four the following year, only one in 2018, and none so far this year.
Schwartz email also included a statement saying the DPS “recognizes that the prevention of suicide by inmates is a critical issue addressed by all correctional staff including adult corrections officers and employees of a correctional facility.”