Questions remain involving suicide of 22-year-old inmate in solitary confinement
Bronx, N.Y. civil rights lawyer Zachary K. Giampa of Giampa Law hopes a recent, in-depth article in The New Yorker about the suicide of 22-year-old Bronx resident Lonnie Hamilton while in solitary confinement in prison nearly one year ago sparks renewed interest in the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.
"There are many questions that remain unanswered," Giampa said recently. "Why was Lonnie denied food? Why was he denied recreation time? Why did the guards wait to open his cell when they found him hanging from the ceiling? We want answers to these questions. And our law firm will not rest until we uncover the truth."
Award-winning New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman wrote the article published by The New Yorker on Feb. 17 titled, "Losing A Son In The New York State Prisons." Other articles have been written about Hamilton's death on March 18, 2016. Such news reports include one published in October 2016 by the website Jezebel ("Seven Months Later, Still No Answers For Family of Man Who Died By Suicide in Solitary Confinement") and several stories aired on NY1 about Hamilton's death and funeral.
What happened to Lonnie Hamilton?
Hamilton entered New York's state prison system on Jan. 2, 2015 after spending 19 months in a city jail. Hamilton was serving a 2- to 6-year prison sentence for robbery in the third degree. "He was involved in strong-arming a Chinese delivery guy for his money," Giampa said. "He was supposed to get out this year at the latest."
The New Yorker article recounts how Hamilton's father, also named Lonnie Hamilton, first learned that his son had died while being incarcerated at Marcy Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y. The younger Hamilton, who was Lonnie Hamilton III, "called his father often" from prison, Gonnerman wrote. Then the elder Hamilton didn't hear from his son for several months. So Hamilton started putting together a care package for his son and went to the prison's website on May 6 to find his inmate number. The website stated that Hamilton III had been released, followed by the words, "03/18/16 DECEASED."
"I'm, like, that must be wrong," Hamilton recalled in The New Yorker article. "So I go and start the whole process all over, and it's coming up 'DECEASED.' My head was swiveling a thousand miles an hour. What the hell is going on? So I call up there, and I'm trying to get answers."
Hamilton then called the correctional facility and found out there was no mistake. His son had died two months before and was buried in a plywood box in his prison uniform near the correctional facility. But no one would tell Hamilton why they didn't call him to inform him of his son's death.
Search for the truth
Hamilton eventually talked to the prison's Deputy Superintendent, Mark Kinderman. "We did everything we could to try to get some kind of response, to try to track someone down," Kinderman said, according to The New Yorker article. Hamilton spoke to Kinderman again two days later and learned for the first time that his son had died by suicide.
Hamilton "suspected he was not getting the full story of his son's death, so he hired an attorney, Zachary Giampa," Gonnerman wrote. Since then, Giampa has vigorously investigated the younger Hamilton's death and helped the family reclaim his body so they could have a proper burial and funeral in the Bronx.
But many questions remain about exactly what happened in the days leading up to Hamilton's suicide in solitary confinement last year. On March 15, 2016, he was placed on suicide watch after he "tried to 'tie [a] sheet around his neck'," The New Yorker states. On March 16, 2016, he was taken off suicide watch but remained in solitary confinement.
Hamilton's final day
On March 18, 2016, Hamilton signed up for his one hour of daily recreation time. "Officer Joseph Mead was supposed to take out the inmates who had requested rec, but he (Hamilton) never go to outside. 'At each cell I went to, including inmate Hamilton's, the inmate was in bed sleeping,' Mead later told the police in a sworn statement," The New Yorker states.
"Later that morning, when Lonnie heard that he had not been given his rec, he became irate, hollering and banging inside his cell," The New Yorker states.
That same day, at 10:45 a.m. and again soon after, two guards on two separate occasions refused to feed Hamilton. Mead and another guard, Alfred Zeina, both later told state police they did not feed him because "Hamilton refused his lunch," Mead told state police, according to The New Yorker article.
But fellow inmates in solitary confinement told a completely different story. "Lonnie started yelling, begging for his food, according to three inmates who later spoke to the state police. One recalled, '30 (Hamilton's cell number) was kicking and banging and carrying on for at least 15 minutes about not getting his chow'," The New Yorker states.
At 11:24 a.m. that same day, March 18, officer Mead found Hamilton hanging from the ceiling. Mead and another guard "both thought he (Hamilton) may still be conscious due to the fact that his hands were clenched into fists," Mead told the state police, according to the New Yorker.
But the guards "did not immediately order the door to be opened but instead decided that 'assistance was need,' Mead said, 'due to the inmate's past history'," The New Yorker article states. The article continues, "By the time the men cut him down and started C.P.R., it was too late. Lonnie Hamilton was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:36 p.m."
Pattern of abuse
Prison guards violated many state Department of Corrections (DOC) guidelines, Giampa said, including removing Hamilton from suicide watch without a psychiatric evaluation the day before his death.
Hamilton's suicide serves as a stark reminder of abusive practices by prison guards in New York State correctional facilities. The New York Times ran a series of articles in 2015 highlighting the abusive actions of New York State prison guards. The Marshall Project published an article in 2015 about Marcy Correctional Facility's widespread use of a controversial practice of padlocking prisoners with impulse control issues into jumpsuits, sometimes for up to 120 days or more at a time.
"This situation never should have happened," Giampa said. "Lonnie Hamilton should still be alive. And we will not rest until justice is served."