$750,000 settlement for prison suicide

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by Laurence Hammack
The Roanoke Times

April 11, 2002

As David Tracy hanged himself with a bed sheet, prison guards watched and waited outside his solitary-confinement cell for more than five minutes, his family claims in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed against Virginia Department of Corrections Director Ron Angelone and officials at Wallens Ridge State Prison, is the second legal action involving the death of Tracy, a Connecticut inmate transferred to the Wise County prison.

Last month, Connecticut agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing the state of sending the 20-year-old to a supermax prison where harsh conditions made his existing mental problems even worse. The second lawsuit, brought by Tracy's parents in U.S. District Court in Big Stone Gap, claims that once their son arrived at Wallens Ridge, the prison failed to give him proper psychiatric care and did little to prevent his suicide.

Tracy "was allowed to hang himself to death while at least eight Wallens Ridge guards stood by and watched until it was too late," the lawsuit claimed.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Wednesday that he could not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit makes the following accusations:

Shortly before midnight April 5, 2000, Tracy made a noose from his bed sheet, tied it to his bed and began to suffocate himself slowly by leaning against the sheet.

A correctional officer was standing outside the cell when the suicide began, but did not open the door or try to help Tracy. The guard apparently called for assistance, and about three minutes passed before three co-workers arrived.

No one tried to help Tracy, though. It was only after a team of eight guards, one armed with an Electro-shock shield, had assembled that they entered the dying inmate's cell.

Guards placed the Electro-shock shield, designed to protect them from inmate attacks, over Tracy's body and shackled him in leg irons before giving him medical assistance. More than 14 minutes after first spotting the suicide, guards called for an ambulance.

Tracy was pronounced dead at 1 a.m. at a nearby hospital. At the time of his death, he had only a few months left to serve on a minor drug charge.

Since it opened in 1999 to isolate the state's most dangerous and troublesome inmates, Wallens Ridge has been the subject of repeated complaints. Human rights groups say excessive force is endemic at a prison where guards are armed with stun guns and shotguns that fire rubber pellets.

The lawsuit, which does not seek a specific amount, accuses the prison staffers of "reckless or callous indifference to David Tracy's dignity as a human being and to his constitutional and statutory rights."

Antonio Ponvert, a Bridgeport, Conn" attorney who represented the Tracy family in its first lawsuit, said the more recent allegations "are not only accurate, but they come from the incident reports that were prepared by Wallens Ridge itself,"

Prison policy apparently calls for the formation of a "cell extraction team" to respond to incidents such as Tracy's.

But "there can't be any possible defense to the amount of time it took them to get into his cell," Ponvert said. "It's absolutely sick."