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December 16, 2007 - The Day (CT)

Without Hope In A Prison Cell

Family of Inmate Who Committed Suicide at Corrigan Receives Settlement but Not Peace

By Karen Florin

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Michael Newlan left a suicide note on the bed in his cell at Corrigan Correctional Institution and hanged himself with the laces from his sneakers on March 14, 2002.

The 29-year-old Newlan, who grew up in Groton but was living in New London most recently, was taken off life support three days later, after doctors at The William W. Backus Hospital declared him brain dead.

The state recently awarded $550,000 to Newlan's mother, Nancy, to end a wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Correction.

"We brought a lawsuit on the basis that his mother had repeatedly warned people, including the psychiatric staff, that he was suicidal," said New London attorney Robert I. Reardon.

Newlan, who had been arrested on marijuana charges, had a drug problem and mental illness due to a traumatic brain injury he received in a 1990 car crash. He had no history of violence and was, his mother said, "the most mellow guy." He was working as a pizza deliveryman and living in an apartment on Brainard Street in New London, under the supervision of the First Step community mental health program.

Nancy Newlan said funds from the settlement, which resulted from mediation as the case moved toward trial, are being put into a trust for Newlan's sister and two brothers.

"Nothing brings Michael back," she said. But she does hope to prevent the same thing from happening to others, so as painful as it is to talk about her son, she agreed to share his story with The Day.

Newlan initially was placed on suicide watch at the prison but was taken off cautionary status and given his clothing after he intimated he was OK and complained about the hospital gown he had been made to wear, Reardon said.

"They videotaped when they cut him down," Reardon said. "We watched them put him on a gurney and wheel him away."

The correctional staff that responded to his cell did not have the proper tool to cut away the laces or a heart defibrillator with which to attempt resuscitation, Reardon said.

Reardon said the correction department stopped issuing sneakers with laces as a result of the lawsuit.

"Now they give slip-ons," he said.

A correction department spokesman disputed Reardon's assertion that the lawsuit changed the procedure but acknowledged the department has made several changes as the result of a rash of suicides at the state's prisons.

"A death such as this is a tragedy for the inmate, his family and for the correctional staff whose custody he was in," said Brian Garnett, a prison spokesman. "The Department of Correction is committed to doing all it can to prevent occurrences of self harm such as this."

Garnett said staff takes shoelaces away from offenders when they first come into intake units, because that tends to be a very stressful time.

"That's typically only for the first two weeks or so until they're stabilized," he said. The department implemented measures to combat the occurrence of suicide after an unusually high number of suicides in 2004 ( nine deaths ) and 2005 ( seven deaths ), Garnett said.

Nancy Newlan knew her son was suicidal, because he had been hospitalized before for slitting his wrists and other attempts to kill himself. She had been unable to see him since he was arrested on marijuana charges a week earlier but had called prison officials several times to warn them. She was concerned also because the prison refused to administer methadone, a drug that her son had successfully used to combat a heroin addiction.

"I did speak to one social worker that was very nice and seemed as though she actually took an interest in Michael," the mother said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. But she also spoke several times to a nurse who she said was "very curt."

"She said, 'This is not a hospital. This is a prison,' " Newlan remembered. "I was appalled."

Newlan was arrested on marijuana possession charges on March 7, 2003, when he returned to his apartment after celebrating his sister's birthday with his mother and sister at G. Willikers restaurant in Groton.

He was on probation for passing bad checks, and his probation officer had found marijuana in the apartment, which Newlan shared with another man.

"He had a problem with drugs, but he was really coming out of it successfully," Reardon said. Newlan claimed the marijuana was not his, but he was charged with possession of marijuana, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of more than 4 ounces of marijuana and possession of more than four ounces of marijuana within 1,500 feet of a school. He was taken to New London Police Department and, at some point, to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital for treatment of a black eye and other injuries he suffered from intentionally banging his head against the wall of his cell, officials said.

Nancy Newlan went to court with Michael's social worker with the intent of posting his $10,000 bond. Assured by a bondsman that she had plenty of time to get the money before her son would appear, the mother left the courthouse to get the money. She returned a short time later with the money, only to be told her son had already appeared before the judge, who had raised his bond to $25,000.

She talked to a prosecutor and a public defender, who told her there was nothing they could do. Michael was taken to the Montville prison, and he was not allowed to have visitors.

"That was it," the mother said. "He was gone. I couldn't do anything. I never saw Michael again."

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