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Civil Rights Lawsuit Stands

By Phil Ray
pray@altoonamirror.com

JOHNSTOWN – A federal judge has refused to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of a 32-year-old Bellwood man who committed suicide in 2006 at the Blair County Prison.

The lawsuit was filed in 2007 by the wife of Jeremy S. Corbin, Kayci Lynn Tatsch-Corbin, on behalf of Corbin’s estate and his children. She sued Blair County; the company that provides medical care at the prison, Prime Care Medical Inc. of Harrisburg; and a forensic specialist at the prison.

The suit, filed by attorney Andrew Shubin of State College, charged that Corbin’s federal rights to due process were violated when he was an inmate at the prison in October 2006. It also claimed damages under Pennsylvania law, the Pennsylvania Survival Act and the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act.

U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson last week refused to dismiss the federal due-process claims against all three defendants but indicated that the county has immunity for a lawsuit on the state statutes. Gibson took more than a year to issue his ruling.

Blair County Commissioner Chairman Terry Tomassetti, who is also the chairman of the county prison board, declined comment Friday.

The judge’s ruling refusing to dismiss the charges clears the way for trial.

Gibson summed up the Corbin case by quoting from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said when a state incarcerates a person depriving him of his liberty, “it is only just the state be required to care for him.”

“Defendants assert they fulfilled this solemn duty. Plaintiffs’ account tells quite a different story,” Gibson’s ruling stated.

“A jury should decide the many issues of material fact remaining in this case, and determine which version to accept.”

Suicide attempts at the county prison are a problem, but what set the Corbin case apart was that he was identified as a potential suicide almost immediately after he arrived at the prison on Oct. 18, 2006, charged with violating a protection-from-abuse order, court documents state.

The prison’s intake officer reported Corbin was “thinking about killing himself.” He was initially placed in a suicide observation cell, but when his case was reviewed by Jennifer Feathers, a forensic specialist at the prison, she determined he was not a suicide risk, court documents state.

Corbin, who had no prior criminal record but had a history of mental health problems, was placed in the general prison population. When he appeared in court the next day, he told sheriff’s deputies he intended to kill himself, according to the judge’s opinion.

After yet another review by the forensic specialist, who Gibson pointed out was not a licensed therapist, Corbin was placed in a general population cell. Corbin hung himself on Oct. 20, 2006.

The mental health and medical care at the prison was provided by Prime Care under contract with the county. Feathers was serving as a mental health review officer under a contract between Prime Care and Altoona Regional Health System, Altoona Hospital Campus.

Feathers has denied doing anything wrong in her assessment of Corbin, but Gibson concluded “a reasonable jury could find that Feathers exhibited deliberate indifference to Corbin’s condition and therefore there are genuine issues of material fact present concerning the [civil rights] claim.”

The judge ruled also the fact that Feathers was given “unchecked authority” to make decisions concerning possible suicide threats “raise a host of significant issues of material fact dealing with municipal [the county] and corporate [Prime Care] liability to be decided by a jury.”

On June 28, 2007, eight months after Corbin’s suicide, another Blair County inmate, Nathan James Aughenbaugh, 27, of Morrisdale committed suicide.

Warden Michael M. Johnston, who was not in his position at the time of the two suicides, said that steps have been taken in the last couple of years to address the ongoing threat of suicide.

An inmate is evaluated according to a step system when he enters the county jail, Johnston said. If he is found to be suicidal, he is placed on suicide watch, and any decision to change the evaluation is made by a psychiatrist.

Johnston said that, at his request, a part-time mental health clinician position was changed to a full-time one.

It is not unusual to place an inmate on suicide watch.

Thirty-one inmates were placed on suicide watch in January 2010, Johnston said. There were 18 inmates on suicide watch in December. The monthly average in 2010 was 25 inmates on suicide watch.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.