The family of a Winooski man who hanged himself in a state prison last year has sued the Vermont Department of Corrections.
The suit alleges that DOC staff drove Robert Mossey, 38, to suicide by failing to monitor him after prescribing medication with psychological side effects, and by letting him languish in custody weeks after he could have been released.
Mossey hanged himself in a broom closet at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Newport in August 2013, three months after he began serving a sentence for retail theft. Though Mossey had a history of depression, bipolar disorder and a previous suicide attempt, prison health care workers prescribed him a medication, Effexor, that the FDA warns has "serious or life-threatening adverse effects," according to the lawsuit.
Mossey was never evaluated by a doctor or mental health worker regarding the effects of the medication after it was prescribed, the lawsuit alleges, even though DOC protocol requires diligent follow-up. Moreover, Mossey failed to show up to receive his medication on at least five occasions inside the prison, but did not receive counseling.
Meanwhile, his personal life was crumbling. In the weeks before his death, the Vermont Department for Children and Families took custody of his infant son at birth, and Mossey's fiancée was evicted from her home, which DOC staff should have known, the lawsuit alleges.
"They were deliberately indifferent to a known risk of suicide," the Mossey family's attorney, David Sleigh, said in an interview.
Adding to his despair, Mossey had been eligible for release for two months, but remained incarcerated largely because DOC staffers failed to help him find an approved residence, according to the lawsuit. (Typically, inmates are not released from prison unless they can find a home that probation and parole officers approve.)
Mossey had filed two complaints against DOC staffer Tim Simoneau over the housing issue and they were both rejected — the second one four days before his death.
"Simoneau's failure to perform his case management responsibilities toward Mr. Mossey, knowing or having been responsible for knowing Mr. Mossey's fragile mental health state, was outrageous, shocks the conscience and demonstrated malicious intent to cause suffering to Mr. Mossey," Sleigh wrote in a 16-page complaint filed in Chittenden Superior Court.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages on five grounds, including cruel and unusual punishment, medical malpractice and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A hearing has not been scheduled.
DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito declined to comment.
Mossey was incarcerated for retail theft, which triggered a probation violation stemming from previous offenses.
Mossey had three children. Any money won would go to them, Sleigh said. Disability Rights Vermont is also part of the Mossey family's legal team. His mother, Eleanor Jimmo, filed the lawsuit on behalf of her son's estate.
Mossey's suicide prompted a series of reviews. A Vermont State Police investigation cleared DOC staff of criminal wrongdoing, and a Defender General's Office report focused on how Mossey was able to gain access to the broom closet and hang himself without being discovered by prison guards.
Mossey was last seen by fellow prisoners at 11:45 a.m on August 30, 2013. At 12:15 p.m., a prisoner assigned to clean-up duties in Mossey's unit heard running water from the broom closet, which he discovered was locked. He notified guard Jessica Blake. Blake could not open the door with her key, but did not notify her supervisors until 1:45 p.m., when a regularly scheduled head count revealed a missing prisoner, according to the lawsuit.
Maintenance staff opened the door, and found Mossey hanging from a rope and bed sheet tied to a grate above a closet sink. Mossey had apparently jammed the closet shut, and accidentally turned on the water during his hanging.
His was the first prison suicide in Vermont since 2004.