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Williams v. Eckstein

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 9, 2019

SCOTT ECKSTEIN, et al., Defendants.


          William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge

         This case involves the increasingly common claim by a state prisoner against a correctional officer for failing to prevent him from harming himself in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It also involves the obverse claim that the efforts of the prison staff and officers to prevent him from harming himself further also amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Both claims reflect the extraordinary time, effort, and expense that prisons must devote to dealing with inmates who threaten self-harm, whether they are severely mentally ill, and thus not responsible for their conduct, or not.

         On May 26, 2017, Plaintiff Derek M. Williams, an inmate currently incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution who is proceeding pro se, commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Western District of Wisconsin. At screening, Williams was allowed to proceed on Eighth Amendment claims against all defendants. Williams later amended his complaint, and, upon the defendants' motion and after briefing, the case was transferred to this court by order dated September 11, 2018. The court has subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, Williams' motion will be denied and the defendants' motion will be granted in part.


         A. Self-Harm on March 23-24, 2017

         At all times relevant, Williams was an inmate housed at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU). The defendants were employees at GBCI: De Anna Stacy was a correctional officer; Andrew Wickman and James Elsinger were lieutenants; Jay Van Lanen was a captain; and Scott Eckstein was the warden. On March 23, 2017, Stacy, who began her employment at GBCI in October 2016, was working in RHU on third shift from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. the next day. Stacy was assigned to supervise wing 500, as well as to monitor the inmates on observation status. Observation status is a restrictive status used for the purpose of preventing an inmate from inflicting harm upon himself or someone else. During the shift, Stacy was assigned to monitor three inmates on observation status, which meant that she would observe and record, both electronically and on written forms, each observation inmate's activities every fifteen minutes throughout the shift. These three observation inmates were housed in cells 212, 306, and 405, which are located in separate wings of RHU.

         Williams was not on observation status at the beginning of Stacy's March 23rd shift, meaning he was not one of the inmates she was assigned to routinely monitor, though she conducted visual wellness checks of the inmates in the 500 wing, including Williams, who was in cell 504. At about 10:25 p.m., while Stacy was on her way to check on the observation inmates, Williams called Stacy to his cell and requested some paper bags. According to Williams, it was at this time he told Stacy: “I need to be placed on obs. (Observation Status) and I have all my property packed up, get the Sgt. and bring me four more bags for the rest of my property.” Williams Decl., Dkt No. 35 at ¶ 3. GBCI inmates Brandon McDuffie, Matthew Richard, and Kurtis Jones each attest that they heard Williams tell Stacy that he needed to be placed on observation status and that his property was packed. McDuffie, Richard, Jones Decls., Dkt. No. 35-1 at 18, 20, 22. Stacy admits that Williams requested some paper bags, but denies that he said he needed to be placed on observation status, that his property was packed, or that he provided a reason for requesting paper bags.

         According to Williams, Stacy told him that she would finish her round and then notify the sergeant, but Stacy attests she told him only that she would drop off paper bags after her rounds. She claims that, as a regular practice, she informs a sergeant or supervisor when an inmate indicates thoughts of self-harm or requests observation placement. At the time of this initial encounter, Williams did not have a sharpened pen. At some point, Williams began sharpening a pen on the concrete floor of his cell and observed flashlights moving past his cell, although he was not able to identify the officers and did not attempt to communicate with them.

         Stacy contends that later in the shift, she returned to Williams' cell with the paper bags he requested, but because it appeared that Williams was sleeping, she placed the bags in the mailbox attached to the wall outside his cell. According to Williams, he was not sleeping and, around 11:00 p.m., he told Stacy: “I need to go on obs. I'm having suicidal thoughts.” Williams Decl., Dkt. No. 35 at ¶ 14. McDuffie and Richard both attest that they heard Williams yell to Stacy that he was having suicidal thoughts. Williams attests that Stacy said to give her some time. Stacy denies that Williams ever told her he was having suicidal thoughts. Again, Stacy believed Williams to be sleeping, so she left the bags in his mailbox and continued her duties of monitoring the inmates on observation status. Around midnight, Williams informed an unidentified correctional officer that he told Stacy he was suicidal and needed to go on observation status. Richard recalls Williams telling the unidentified officer that he needed to be placed on observation.

         Over the next several hours, Williams paced back and forth while other inmates, including McDuffie, Richard, and Jones, continued to call his name, but he did not respond. About four hours passed before Williams began harming himself. Sometime after 2:00 a.m. on March 24th, Richard and Jones pushed their emergency call buttons to ask staff to check on Williams, but no one responded. After some time had passed, sometime around 3:00 a.m., Richard and Jones began to yell and kick their cell doors to get the staff's attention because they continued to call to Williams but received no response. Shortly before 3:50 a.m., while performing observation checks, Stacy heard a loud banging noise in the 500 wing, which she investigated. She looked into Williams' cell and saw that he had punctured his right arm in the elbow crease and was bleeding. By that time, the cell floor was covered in blood. Stacy immediately contacted Sergeant Koeller, who took control of the situation. Williams was assessed by a health services unit (HSU) nurse and then taken to a hospital emergency room for treatment. Prior to March 23, 2017, Stacy had never spoken to Williams, and she was unaware that he had engaged in self-harm in the past.

         B. Restraint Placement from March 24-28, 2017

         Williams returned from the hospital around 6:30 a.m. on March 24th, at which time Van Lanen contacted Dr. Amy Zirbel, the on-call psychologist and Williams' assigned clinician, to discuss Williams' continued threat of self-harm. Van Lanen reported that Williams made threats to continue to engage in self-harm unless he was strapped down. Dr. Zirbel told Van Lanen to place Williams on constant observation status, which involves continuous line-of-sight monitoring by a correctional officer. Van Lanen told Williams that he would be moving to a clinical observation cell, but Williams made threats to harm himself if he were placed in a cell. Van Lanen recontacted Dr. Zirbel and informed her of Williams' threats. Dr. Zirbel then determined Williams needed to be placed in mechanical restraints, which are authorized by Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) policy #500.70.10, to ensure his safety.

         Williams was placed in restraints by security staff at approximately 7:05 a.m. on March 24th. A restraint bed, which uses five points of restraint with the inmate lying supine, is the primary method of restraint for clinical purposes. The initial time limit for placement in mechanical restraints is twelve hours, but that limit may be extended if an interview and examination of the inmate is conducted by a mental health clinician, medical staff, and a security supervisor, at least every twelve hours, and there are no mental health or medical recommendations against continued restraint. Additionally, the warden, a psychological services clinician, a nurse, and the DAI Administrator's designee must all sign off on the extension of the restraint placement.

         According to Eckstein, if the restraint period is extended beyond twelve hours, the standard protocol at GBCI is to transfer the inmate to a restraint chair for a two-hour interval. This transfer is intended to get the inmate off his back, avoid joint stiffness, enhance blood circulation, implement range of motion activities, have the inmate evaluated by staff, allow the inmate to get food, water, and use the toilet, and ensure that the inmate had no contraband. The restraint chair is used on a temporary basis to change the inmate's position for the inmate's health. After two hours in a restraint chair, the inmate is transferred back to a restraint bed. While in restraints, mental health staff assess the inmate every twelve hours or more frequently if clinically necessary. HSU staff perform health assessments, circulation checks, and range of motion activities every four hours, but every two hours if ...

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