Steven T. Budaj, P.C.

Cadillac Tower

 Law Offices of Steven T. Budaj, P.C.

 

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 Detroit, Michigan  48226

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News

FAMILY SETTLES PRISON SUICIDE CASE AGAINST
STATE OF MICHIGAN
AND ITS EMPLOYEES

FOR $737,500.00

The State of Michigan has agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement in the amount of $737,500.00 to the family of Eugene Lewis, who died on October 8, 1993, while in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections and supposedly under the care of the Michigan Department of Mental Health -- just 3 months short of his scheduled parole date. He left behind a wife, 4 children, both parents and 5 siblings. A default judgment had already been entered against the State by Judge Michael Harrison of the Michigan Court of Claims, because of its refusal to comply with a court order requiring persons with authority to appear at a pre-scheduled Settlement Conference.

Mr. Lewis, a 1st time offender serving time for the non-violent crime of breaking and entering, became seriously mentally ill and suicidal in 1989, several months after beginning his prison sentence. Over the next 4 ½ years, he was on an ever-faster downward spiral of psychiatric deterioration, and he attempted suicide (or engaged in other self-injurious behavior) at least 20 documented times before October 8, 1993. Each time he injured or tried to kill himself, in a desperate cry for help for his underlying mental illness, rather then receive the treatment he needed, Mr. Lewis was punished. Almost exactly one year before his death, a low-level psychologist within the Department of Corrections wrote a detailed report to the Parole Board, urging that Mr. Lewis be released into a community mental health treatment program, that he was not a threat to anyone but himself, that he had the potential to once again become a productive member of society if he could receive the treatment that he desperately needed, that he was a serious suicide risk and, prophetically, that if he did not receive parole or the treatment he needed, he would be dead within a year.

Thirteen months later, on October 8, 1993, Eugene Lewis died after being placed in a punitive segregation cell, equipped with a sheet, a grate and a shelf to stand on. On that date, Mr. Lewis suffered a serious psychotic breakdown, begged a corrections officer for help (while sobbing), was sent to a psychiatrist who saw him for 10 minutes and documented the seriousness of his condition, then was promptly returned into the hands of the corrections personnel with the statement from the psychiatrist that this was "a custody and security matter," not a psychiatric one. Within hours after being placed in the segregation cell, after telling one of the guards about his suicidal history and that if he was placed into segregation he would "do something," Eugene Lewis hung himself to death by tying his bed sheet to the metal grate and jumping off the shelf.

Although the State had written policies to protect prisoners like Mr. Lewis, they were routinely ignored and, as a result, such prisoners were not even minimally protected. The attitude toward mentally ill prisoners within the Department of Corrections, even among mental health professionals, was that they were "seen as a bug and the attitude was one of laughing at them and putting them down," according to a retired Ph.D. psychologist who had worked within the Department of Corrections for 17 years.

Suit was filed by attorneys for the Estate, Steven T. Budaj, P.C. and Julie H. Hurwitz, P.C., against the State in the Court of Claims and against the individuals in the United States Federal District Court. After the default judgment was entered against the State, a damages only trial was heard by Court of Claims Judge Harrison. After that trial, and immediately before the Federal trial against the individuals was scheduled to begin, the parties reached a settlement agreement in the amount of $737,500.00.

Attorney Budaj said, "This case has been pending for nearly 3 years. The family has suffered long enough and has already sat through one trial, having to re-live the horror of their son's/husband's/brother's/father's horrible ordeal and ultimate death. They would have had to go through it all over again in the Federal court trial. This settlement, which was a compromise for all the parties, finally puts an end to this family's nightmare and, hopefully, sends a message to the State that prisoners, especially those who are mentally ill, are human beings and are entitled to be treated as such." 


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