Deaths at OPP shine light on problems handling mental illness

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wwltv.com

Posted on November 7, 2012 at 11:41 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 8 at 2:22 PM

Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

NEW ORLEANS – They say if you are jailed in Orleans Parish Prison, it can amount to a death sentence. “They” are the loved ones of inmates who have died in the prison.

And as the city and Sheriff Marlin Gusman grapple over the cost of prison reforms, the loved one of dead inmates say they’re afraid delaying those reforms could lead to more deaths.

The loved ones of Cayne Miceli, Commander William Goetzee and Michael Hitzman have been waging a personal campaign to abolish what they view as the horrific conditions inside Orleans Parish Prison that contributed to the deaths of all three.

All three inmates were awaiting court hearings when they died in OPP.

“I want people to know that this could happen to their loved one,” said Pam Hitzman.

Her son Michael, 32, the married father of two small children, hanged himself with his t-shirt in April 2010. The incident was videotaped on camera inside the jail. It happened before he was even processed into jail, only about two hours after he arrived at the prison’s intake processing center.

“My son had depression, anxiety, and a substance abuse problem,” Hitzman’s mother said.

Michael Hitzman was taken to prison for failing to make a court appearance on a heroin possession charge.

His family says he turned to street drugs when his insurance and prescribed pain killers for a back injury ran out. His twin sister says just a month earlier he was released from University Hospital just 12 hours after she had gotten him committed for his own protection.

“I told them that he was suicidal and he was addicted to heroin. And I’m scared that he’s going to kill himself,” said Michelle Perdomo, his sister.

In a letter this past April to Sheriff Marlin Gusman demanding better mental health screenings in prison, the U.S. Department of Justice referenced Hitzman’s suicide without naming him.

“He was placed in an isolation cell where he was supposed to be closely monitored by ... camera,” the DOJ wrote.

“His death could have been stopped at any point because it was filmed on camera,” said his mother.

“My brother was dead for an hour before they found him,” added Hitzman’s sister.

According to the Department of Justice, “OPP’s failure to properly screen and monitor likely contributed to his death.”

“We hoped that while he was there that he would be cared for, that he would detox. He would be safe. We were very, very wrong,” Hitzman’s mother said.

In another inciden, the case of Coast Guard Commander William Goetzee’s suicide in August of 2011 is, according to DOJ’s letter to Sheriff Gusman “…an egregious example of OPP’s inadequate monitoring and supervision practices that contributed to his death.”

“He had killed himself. He had killed himself by eating toilet paper,” said Donna Gauthier, Goetzee’s fiancée.

The Department of Justice says it was “suicide by asphyxiation.”

Goetzee’s fiancée says he seemed to lose control two months earlier while taking prescribed medications after suffering serious injuries in a single car crash. Then last August, she says he jumped into a federal officer’s car and tried to grab his gun.

“He said he wanted to kill himself,” said Gauthier.

DOJ says Goetzee was placed in a two-man cell on suicide watch with a guard “assigned to constantly observe his behavior to ensure he did not attempt to cause self-harm. The correctional officer left him unmonitored for five hours.”

“He was sick. That’s all his crime was. That’s all his crime was,” said his fiancée.

The deputy who left his post, William Thompson, was fired, pleaded guilty to malfeasance and was sentenced to five years probation plus 200 hours of community service.

The U.S. Marshals Service has cited unacceptable prison conditions in removing all federal prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison. But for William Goetzee and his loved ones, it was too late.

“We were going to get married. I wound up planning a funeral instead of a wedding,” said Gauthier.

Then there’s the death of artist Cayne Miceli, 43, in 2009.

“She didn’t have a drug problem. She wasn’t a criminal. She was an active member of society,” said Sophia Miceli Becker, Miceli’s sister.

Her sister says Cayne Miceli was arrested after she became abusive and disruptive when Tulane Medical Center discharged her against her will following treatment for a severe asthma attack.

“They gave her medication that she was highly allergic to. She didn’t realize that until she was being discharged, read over the paperwork,” said Becker.

DOJ says she was considered “hostile and suicidal” and “was placed in five point restraints even after she repeatedly complained of asthma and breathing distress.”

“They strapped her down to a 5 point restraint belt on her back and she suffocated,” said her sister.

None of these three people who died in parish prison had even been gone to trial. Their loved ones and other activists say the prison has had 37 questionable deaths since 2006.

They believe the pending federal consent decree may be only part of the solution. They all say Sheriff Marlin Gusman himself is part of the problem.

Eyewitness News asked for an on-camera interview with Sheriff Gusman. Instead, a spokesman sent a statement from the sheriff’s medical director, Dr. Samuel Gore.

In part, Gore says, “We are saddened and professionally frustrated when one of our inmate patients passes away. ... For a jail our size, the Orleans Parish jail system is below or near the national average of mortality rates of inmates.”

Since several of the families profiled are now suing the sheriff's office, a spokesman said the sheriff cannot respond to individual cases, due to litigation.

In the case of Cayne Miceli, Tulane Medical Center says she “was appropriately discharged” after receiving treatment and was arrested for “assaulting a police officer.”

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