Ill Convicts' Rights At Issue

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by Lynne Tuohy
The Hartford Courant

February 12, 2004

Does the Connecticut Patients Bill of Rights - which guarantees adequate and humane treatment to the state's psychiatric patients - apply to mentally ill prisoners?

A clearly skeptical panel of Supreme Court justices Wednesday heard arguments that it does from Antonio Ponvert III, the attorney representing the estate of Bryant Wiseman. The 28-year-old convict, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was shackled and fatally beaten by guards in a mental health unit at the Garner Correctional Institution in November 1999.

Attorneys representing the Department of Correction argue that applying the Patients Bill of Rights in a prison setting would lead to bizarre results.

Assistant Attorney General Ann E. Lynch stressed the 1971 law mandates that psychiatric patients be allowed to wear their own clothing, keep money and other possessions, make and receive phone calls and send and receive confidential correspondence. The act also requires that a list of patients' rights be posted in mental health units, including among them the right to leave the facility at any time.

"What about the right to leave?" Justice David M. Borden asked Ponvert.

"That only makes sense if the patient already has the right to leave," Ponvert replied. Ponvert argued that the act bars mental health officials from abridging the stated rights based solely upon a patient's disability, but incarceration renders many of the rights inapplicable. By analogy, he said, a 16-year-old psychiatric patient wouldn't automatically have the right to vote just because the patients' rights bill dictates that patients be allowed to vote.

Ponvert argued that the law's requirements that all patients receive humane and dignified treatment, a specialized treatment plan and periodic psychiatric exams applies equally to those in correctional facilities.

Prison mental health staff discontinued Wiseman's anti-psychotic medication two days before his death, and Wiseman became increasingly aggressive as a result, his family's lawsuit says. On Nov. 17, 1999, Wiseman got into a fight with another inmate, and at least eight correctional officers subdued him, shackled his hands and ankles and pinned him down, causing him to vomit and lose consciousness. He died of asphyxia. The incident was captured on a prison videotape.

Wiseman's mother, Elaine, attended the Supreme Court arguments and, visibly distraught, was reluctant to say very much afterward.

"It's just really hard right now," she said. "I just pray everything will work out in the end."

Jackie Ford, a cousin of Bryant Wiseman, said the family had watched the prison videotape, which was obtained by Elaine Wiseman's attorneys.

"It was disgraceful. It was appalling," Ford said. "No one should have to see a relative die the way he died. A lot of things should have been done differently."

The case reached the Supreme Court after a trial judge refused to grant the state's motion to dismiss, ruling that the Patients Bill of Rights law does apply to inmates being treated for mental illness. Wiseman's death occurred seven months after another inmate, Timothy Perry, died under similar circumstances at the Hartford Correctional Center. Perry's family, also represented by Ponvert and his law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, settled their lawsuit against the state for $2.9 million.

Even if the Supreme Court rules against Wiseman, the lawsuit will continue on allegations of medical malpractice and civil rights violations. An additional three allegations in the lawsuit are based on assertions that the Patients Bill of Rights law applies to prisoners, and Ponvert said it's the success of these allegations that could determine the way mentally ill inmates are treated in the future.

"These claims matter more in terms of what kind of care mentally ill people in the custody of the Department of Correction will get from this day forward," Ponvert said after court. Wiseman's mother, he said, "cares deeply about having this litigation stand for something other than a mere money damages cause of action."