Bonnie Lopez describes her younger sister, Melody Morgan, as a designer who loved drawing and painting. She also spent days and nights in the kitchen, cooking and baking sweet treats for the family. Above all, Morgan loved being with his sister and mother, Colleen Lackey.
At the same time, Lopez said Morgan had physical and mental health issues, including seizures, migraines, bipolar disorder, multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia. After a fall on her head at age 10 left her with a brain cyst, she was declared disabled and received Social Security disability benefits. Over the years, she has undergone three psychiatric hospitalizations following suicide attempts.
âShe fought a lot of hidden demons,â Lopez said.
Morgan’s family claim that Nevada prison officials failed to take proper precautions and provide proper care while incarcerated, which resulted in her death by suicide at the age of 25 in 2018.
And Morgan’s case is not unique. Dozens of Nevada inmates commit suicide each year at a rate of about 28 per 10,000 prisoners, 20 times the 2019 national suicide rate of 14 per 100,000 people. Studies show that incarcerated women tend to attempt suicide at higher rates than their male counterparts.
From 2001 to 2014, suicides accounted for 7% of deaths in Nevada Department of Corrections prisons. It was the most common unnatural cause of death according to the UNLV Center for Criminal and Judicial Policy.
Lopez and Lackey therefore filed a wrongful death complaint in 2020, asking for more than $ 75,000 from the Department of Corrections and a number of its officers. They claimed Morgan had not received a medical assessment and was not placed on suicidal watch, actions family members said could have saved her life.
âLackey and Lopez were denied the care, comfort, love, protection, guidance, society and physical assistance of their daughter and sister,â the lawsuit says.
In June, the case was referred to federal court because several of the charges involved federal civil rights law. And earlier this month, the state Board of Examiners approved a request from the state attorney general’s office for $ 40,000 to pay for outside legal assistance to represent its defendants. Corrections officers involved in the trial are divided in their defense, represented by different attorneys and blaming each other for the miscommunication issues that led to Morgan’s death.
Morgan’s story began in 2012, after his arrest and incarceration for burglary and theft. Originally placed on suicidal watch, a 2013 skills assessment determined Morgan was at risk for suicide. She was first accommodated at the Florence McClure Correctional Center for Women in North Las Vegas, then transferred to the Jean Conservation Camp.
There, she left the scene with another inmate in 2018. Correctional center officials sought help from Morgan’s mother in locating her and reincarcerating her. With Lackey’s help, Morgan was found over a week later and returned to the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center.
Lackey said he told a prison officer there that Morgan should again be placed on suicide watch or placed in a psychiatric ward for his own safety. But within 48 hours of returning to Florence McClure, Morgan was found dead in her cell, without supervision or psychiatric care.
âI asked for legal action because I wanted some sort of justice for my sister,â Lopez said in an interview with The Independent of Nevada.
Lopez and Lackey claim that prison officials violated the Eighth Amendment (which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment) by ignoring his risk of suicide. The lawsuit says Lackey’s loss of his daughter also violated the Fourteenth Amendment (which prevents any person’s life, liberty or property from being deprived without due process).
Lopez and Lackey called state corrections officers “deliberately indifferent” to the lawsuit and alleged multiple cases of inappropriate medical care and neglect.
An affidavit from Kimberly M. Pearson, a medical expert, states that Morgan was readmitted without a medical assessment and was housed with potentially dangerous items without regard to any thoughts of suicide. When nurses at the facility found her, they made poor attempts to resuscitate Morgan with CPR or an automated external defibrillator, Pearson said.
âThere had not been proper positioning and opening of the airways and delivery of breaths as required by Basic Life Support algorithms until approximately six minutes after the start of the resuscitation process,â said Pearson in the affidavit.
Nevada Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But in court records, the department argues that Lopez and Lackey have no grounds to sue for an Eighth Amendment violation because neither of them have been incarcerated. Further, they claim that one of the officers named in the case was not present at work on the day of Morgan’s suicide and could not be held responsible for any charges.
Appointed prison officers in turn accused themselves of miscommunication in response to the trial. An officer – who contacted Lackey for help moving Morgan after his escape – called another officer, voicing Lackey’s concerns about Morgan’s health. This second officer claimed to have informed a third officer of the problem, but the third individual denied being informed in the first place of Morgan’s health.
Court documents also indicated that two nurses at the facility admitted that they had not read the medical directive on “receiving screening,” the correctional service policy that requires nurses to assess the medical needs of patients. inmates upon arrival at a correctional facility.
The case is now before Federal Court for a settlement conference, where the opposing parties will attempt to reach a mutually acceptable resolution in the case. An ongoing discovery process could potentially face a judge next year.
Lopez said she wanted to see responsibility for the lack of communication and get answers on what exactly led to Morgan’s death and why she did not receive the care her medical history warranted.
âEspecially for my mom, because I know it’s very difficult for her,â Lopez said. “She’s constantly looking for some type of answer as to why and what happened.”