Rio Blanco County sheriff’s employees did not unconstitutionally ignore the risk of suicide to a woman who died inside the county jail in 2016, the federal appeals court based in Denver has ruled.
Although there were allegations the employees failed to check on Catherine Rowell hourly, as the policy manual required, “the officers’ failure to follow jail procedures does not equate with a constitutional violation,” wrote Senior Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr. in an opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
The ruling from the three-member appellate panel upheld a lower court judge’s finding that Rowell’s behavior in the jail did not put employees on sufficient notice of her suicidality, and therefore their failure to prevent it did not violate Rowell’s rights.
Rowell’s estate, which included her husband and children, sued Sheriff Anthony Mazzola and four other employees for wrongful death due to negligence and deliberate indifference under the 14th Amendment to Rowell’s risk of suicide.
Rowell, who was booked at the jail in Meeker for violating a protective order, died Feb. 15, 2016. Jail staff found her strangled with a telephone cable, and were unable to revive her. Some of the jail personnel were familiar with Rowell from her previous bookings, and the intake questionnaire from Rowell’s detention indicated she had not disclosed any suicidality. The plaintiffs alleged instead that the deputy had not asked her the question.
Although Rowell reportedly showed signs of apathy, frequent sleeping, rejection of outdoor recreation time and lack of appetite, jail personnel stated they were unconcerned about those behaviors. The estate alleged staff should have checked on Rowell every 15 minutes and she "should have been placed in jail cell that did not provide her an opportunity to harm herself."
In January 2020, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Robert E. Blackburn concluded that “the facts in the record of this case fall well short of demonstrating that any defendant was aware of facts from which the inference can reasonably be drawn that the armored cable presented a substantial risk of suicide,” and that the employees actually understood the risk to Rowell.
The 10th Circuit panel upheld that decision in a March 23 opinion. In evaluating the estate’s claim that Rowell’s death was the result of inadequate policies, Kelly noted that “the jail has had one suicide-by-hanging from decades ago and one recent attempted suicide-by-drowning. While tragic, this is not a pattern of conduct that would establish actual notice of a substantially high risk of suicide.”
On the whole, deaths in jails are not a rare occurrence. A Reuters analysis found that between 2009 and 2019, more than five dozen detained individuals died by suicide in Colorado’s 10 largest jails. In March 2016, Westword reported there to be one dozen suicides in Colorado jails or prisons, including Rowell’s, that occurred from January 2015 through March 2016. Just this week, a man detained in the El Paso County jail died by suicide, and earlier in March the mother of a 27-year-old detainee in Saguache County filed a lawsuit over his death.
The 10th Circuit’s opinion was unpublished, meaning it is not a binding precedent for the future.
The case is Heidel et al. v. Mazzola et al.