Jail Suicide

As part of The People’s Law Office’s long legacy of prison work, the office has litigated – and continues to  litigate – several cases where people in custody have taken their own lives. Though these cases are tremendously sad and difficult, we feel that they are an important tool in forcing jails to respect the rights of the detainees and publicizing their plight. The adage “out of sight, out of mind,” applies all too well to people in custody, and when they are young, immigrants, and mentally ill, the consequences are even more dire.

Austin Wells was a 17-year-old, detained in the Bureau County, Illinois jail in 2007, charged with keeping his 16-year-old girlfriend out past curfew. He was in jail less than a week, when, after he didn’t respond to the daily breakfast call, an officer opened the cell door and found him hanging by a bedsheet strung to the top bunk, his body cold to the touch. The office established that jail officers had not complied with the Illinois state law requiring 30 minute checks, but rather had followed the sheriff’s policy not to leave an enclosed area –  from which they could not see inside Austin’s cell – during the night shift. Austin had been dead for some seven hours by the time they found him. In 2010 the case settled in the high six figures.

Hassiba Belbachir was a 27 year old Muslim woman from Algeria, taken into immigration custody in 2005 at O’Hare airport. With no family in the country, unable to speak much English, and emerging from an abusive relationship, this fragile young woman would have benefitted from her right to contact with her consulate, but no one notified her of this right, and no one notified the consulate that she was in custody. Though she told the jail social worker that she was suicidal, no one provided her the medical care or monitoring she obviously needed. After 8 days in detention, Hassiba took her own life. The office has been litigating the case for 7 years, with the defendants – McHenry County, Centegra health and Immigration and the U.S. government –  attempting to avoid any liability for Hassiba’s death and seeking to conceal the actual conditions in the jail and the nation-wide problem of attempted suicide among immigration detainees. Meanwhile, we have been able to establish that despite a history of problems at the jail, the U.S. has financed construction of a new immigration unit and McHenry County has generated profits of more than $50 million renting beds to the immigration authorities. The case continues.

Lyvita Gomes was a 52 year old former airline attendant from India, living in a Chicago suburb, who was arrested in December 2011 for failing to respond to a summons for jury duty (which, as a non-U.S. citizen she was not eligible for). Held at Lake County Jail, she declared a hunger strike, refusing to eat or drink. Though jail officials determined that she was not competent to participate in her treatment plan, jail and medical staff simply watched as she lost weight and became severely dehydrated. After 15 days, she was finally taken to intensive care at a hospital – at which point the County released her from custody, attempting to avoid responsibility for her medical care. She died within five days. The Indian community, outraged at her unnecessary suffering and death, met with the Indian consulate to insist on action. The faith community, similarly outraged, met with the sheriff to protest as well. The office is currently preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Lyvita’s family.


Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild