Lawyers seek answers in Colchester woman's prison suicide

Attorney Sikandar Rana remembers visiting his client, Monica Jean Piette, in a holding area at the Norwich courthouse on Dec. 16, 2016 as Piette waited to be taken to the Janet S. York Correctional Institution.

"They bring her to a room with Plexiglas," Rana said. "She was standing. She was putting her hand up to the window. She said, 'Get me out! Get me out! I'm not going to last.'"

Five days later, on Dec. 21, the 32-year-old Colchester resident, alone in a prison cell at the Niantic women's prison, used a bed sheet to strangle herself. She was pronounced dead the next day at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

Piette had been struggling with a drinking and drug problem, was going through a divorce and had lost custody of her 5-year-old daughter, according to court records. Rana and attorney Chester Fairlie, who are preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the state Department of Correction, say prison staff should have recognized Piette was in danger of harming herself and done more to prevent her from committing suicide.

The lawyers say they will be filing the lawsuit in Superior Court on behalf of Piette's ex-husband, Johnny Matute, who is the executor of Piette's estate, and that any proceeds awarded to the estate would be used for the benefit of the couple's daughter, Marie Matute. But, because they are attempting to sue a state agency, the attorneys must first get a release from the state Office of the Claims Commissioner.

Fairlie said they have filed paperwork with the claims commissioner within a year of the incident, as required, but that the claim was incomplete because the Department of Correction twice refused to release records about Piette's incarceration. Fairlie is using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records of the medical and mental health evaluations conducted when Piette arrived at the prison as well as surveillance records and information about efforts taken by prison staff to prevent Piette from injuring herself.

The DOC responded twice that the department would not be releasing the records until it completes an investigation into the matter, Fairlie said. The attorneys have appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission, which appointed an attorney who attempted, unsuccessfully, to resolve the matter through mediation.

"We are now in the incongruous situation where one team of state employees is defending York at the Claims Commission while another team of state employees are resisting disclosure of the records of the evaluations and supervision of Ms. Piette," Fairlie said. "This process of discovery is turning out to be much more difficult than it has to be. These are matters that should be processed instead of there having to be a hearing."

The FOIC has scheduled a hearing for Thursday though a Department of Correction spokeswoman said late last week that DOC would be releasing some of the requested records within the next few days.

Struggling with addiction

Piette was a brown-eyed brunette whose daughter, friends remarked, looked just like her. Her ex-husband is currently visiting his native Ecuador with the now almost 7-year-old girl and could not be reached for comment. Nobody answered the door Monday at the Moodus home of Piette's mother.

A woman who worked with Piette at Germano's Bar and Grill in Colchester, which is partially owned by Matute and where Piette was the permittee, said the staff and customers still could hardly bear to talk about her.

"When everyone found out, this whole bar was depressed for two weeks, completely silent," said Meagan Bibisi from behind the bar Monday morning.

During the last months of her life, Piette was "back and forth" from substance abuse rehabilitation programs and was upset about losing custody of her daughter, Bibisi said. When she went to prison, it was close to Christmas, a time of year Piette always loved.

"Being alone and isolated, I think that doesn't help either," Bibisi said.

Documents in Matute and Piette's divorce file in Superior Court in Norwich indicate that in the months before her death, Matute had turned to the police and courts after becoming frustrated and frightened after, he said, Piette began getting drunk and high every day and became aggressive in front of their daughter.

In August 2016, Matute wrote in an application for a protective order that Piette, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol with their daughter in the car, had gotten into a car accident. He said Piette had picked him up at work and passed out, not knowing where she was. Their daughter cried, thinking her mother was dying, and he called for an ambulance.

The Department of Children and Families became involved with the family, and in September 2016, Piette agreed to seek treatment. She went to a Stonington Institute detoxification facility, but left against medical advice and relapsed, according to the court papers.

In October 2016, DCF said Piette was not to be in the family home based on ongoing concerns about the child's safety. In November 2016, a month before Piette's incarceration, a social worker recommended that Matute be granted full custody of the child and that the mother have supervised visits as long as she was clean and sober.

When Piette went to court on Dec. 16, 2016, she had been charged with violation of a protective order that prohibited her from contact with her estranged husband and their daughter. But Matute and Piette still cared for one another, Rana said, and Matute showed up in court for Piette's arraignment.

When Superior Court Judge John M. Newson saw Piette sitting with Matute — ostensibly in violation of the protective order — he raised her bond to $92,500 and judicial marshals took her into custody. Rana said he started scrambling to arrange bail money, but in the meantime, Piette went to prison.

In committing Piette to prison, the judge did not order prison officials to put Piette on suicide watch or stepped-up supervision, nor did Piette's attorney request it, according to a court official.

Piette would have been evaluated for medical and mental health issues upon her arrival at York and assessed for her risk of self-injury.

According to the Department of Correction, dozens of Connecticut inmates attempt suicide each year, and most are unsuccessful. One other prisoner killed herself during the same year as Piette, according to department statistics, and four people died in each of the three years prior.

Karen Martucci, director of external affairs for the DOC, said death investigations require a review of the custody and management services provided by the Department of Correction and of medical and mental health care provided by the University of Connecticut.

"There are several different eyes looking back at what happened, in this case a suicide, and those investigations tend to be lengthy," she said. One of the key items under review will be whether Piette was being managed in conjunction with orders that mental health staff might have given following her intake evaluation.

"If somebody was seen by a clinician and determined they are at high risk of suicide, we have the ability and routinely put them into an area where they would have an extra layer of supervision," Martucci said. "We would limit some of the items they have for their own safety."

"We used to speak in terms of suicide prevention, but now we like to use the term of suicide elimination," Martucci said. "That's the emphasis our commissioner (Scott Semple) wants on this topic. He's continually challenging us to come up with new materials and ways to eliminate suicide."

The department has published links on its website instructing families to notify prison staff if they think an inmate could be suicidal and is encouraging inmates to tell a staff member if their cell partner or any other prisoners appear to be in trouble.

"Sometimes they may be more aware of a situation than we are, for example if they have just been served with divorce papers or are going to lose custody of their children," Martucci said.

The department is also trying to beef up its orientation process, knowing it's a vulnerable time for inmates. Martucci said inmate suicide attempts and suicides are traumatic for staff members, and the department has created a resource card for them to be able to get the help they need.

k.florin@theday.com

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