Colchester woman was deemed at high risk of suicide prior to prison hanging

A 32-year-old Colchester woman who was deemed to have a high risk of suicide by nursing staff at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in December 2016, used a bedsheet to hang herself just three hours after she was transferred from a medical ward into the general population, according to documents obtained last week by attorneys for Monica Piette's estate.

Piette was suffering from a drinking and drug problem, going through a divorce and had lost custody of her young daughter when she was sent to the Niantic women's prison on December 16, 2016, for violating a protective order that prohibited her from having contact with her husband, Johnny Matute.

Attorneys Chester W. Fairlie and Sikandar I. Rana are preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the case and last week obtained documents from the Department of Correction prior to a hearing before the Freedom of Information Commission. Fairlie has been going through the documents and said Monday that what he has learned of Piette's care in the final days of her life is horrible.

"She was considered a high risk for suicide or self-injury from the time of her arrival at York and was in a medical ward, under constant observation for three days," Fairlie said by phone. "Then for some reason she was stepped down to a different ward for observation every 15 minutes. After a day, she was stepped down again to general population, where observation was just about every hour. She was just there for a few hours before she killed herself."

The attorneys are seeking more records from the state, particularly from the University of Connecticut's Correctional Managed Health Care (CMHC) unit, whose staff evaluated and treated Piette upon her arrival at the woman's prison. At some point during her five-day prison stay, her husband called the prison and warned Piette's counselor that she may harm herself, according to Fairlie.

"He indicates he talked to a counselor early in her visit and warned them she had engaged in unpredictable, possibly self-injurious behavior and asked them to watch her carefully," Fairlie said. "He said he was assured she was in a safe place. We're not sure when that occurred yet. We've narrowed it down to a couple of days and that will be further explored."

The attorneys' inquiry into Piette's case coincides with the Department of Correction's decision to no longer contract with UConn for inmate medical services as of July 1, 2018. In December 2016, the same month as Piette's death, the General Assembly directed the DOC to explore alternative options for inmate health care. The decision to transition health care back to the DOC after 20 years was based on a consultant's recommendations after reviewing 25 cases, including eight deaths, involving inmate care that are expected to lead to litigation, the Hartford Courant reported.

Piette had been incarcerated for just five days for an alleged violation of a protective order when she took her own life. Though her husband was divorcing her, he still cared about her and showed up for her Dec. 16, 2016, arraignment in Superior Court, according to attorneys Fairlie and Rana. Seeing Piette sitting in court with Matute, the subject of the protective order, Judge John M. Newson raised her bond to $92,500.

During a meeting in a courthouse holding area before she was taken to prison, Piette begged Rana to get her released from custody and told him, "I'm not going to last," according to Rana.

The records obtained by the attorneys indicate that on Dec. 18, a staff member wrote on a suicide risk assessment form, "This offender is at high risk for potentially lethal sucide" and should be transferred to an infirmary. The same day, a staff member who interviewed Piette to see if she was experiencing drug and alcohol withdrawal wrote on a detoxification report that Piette was sobbing and tearful.

"Asked why she was crying, she said her anxiety was increasing and nobody was doing anything," Fairlie read from the document Monday. "Asked if she was thinking of hurting herself, she said, 'I'm getting there.' ''

Fairlie said he and Rana are waiting for the release of more information to determine how Piette ended up alone in a general-population cell, with no special orders for supervision, on Dec. 21.

Matute was trying to come up with bond money for his estranged wife, even though their divorce was finalized three days after she went to prison, on Dec. 19, 2016. It is unclear whether she was aware that the divorce had gone through.

"It's a degree of the tragedy here, that he who was supposed to be the subject of the protective order was trying to help get her out so that she would be out over Christmas time so she could see her child, even in a supervised visit," said Fairlie.

The thousands of dollars needed to pay a bondsman's premium was more than Matute could raise, Fairlie said. The ex-husband, who coworkers said is currently visiting his native Ecuador with the couple's daughter, Marie, is a part owner of Germano's Bar and Grill in Colchester, where Piette was listed as the permittee at the time of her death.

Matute is the administrator of Piette's estate, and any proceeds from a wrongful death lawsuit would be used for the benefit of the couple's daughter, Marie Matute, according to the attorneys. Because they are attempting to sue a state agency, the attorneys must first get a release from the state Office of the Claims Commissioner. They are awaiting a ruling on their claim.

The attorneys appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission after the Department of Correction, citing their ongoing investigation of the case, denied their records requests. They were scheduled for a hearing this past Thursday, but Fairlie said representatives came to the FOIC office with many of the requested documents and a hearing was not necessary at that time.

k.florin@theday.com

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