The final days of Lonnie Hamilton's life in Marcy Correctional Facility in Upstate New York were a living hell.
That's what an eyewitness and Bronx attorney Zachary K. Giampa say concerning the 22-year-old Bronx, New York native who died on March 18 this year, a year before being released.
Hamilton had been threatening to kill himself in jail, Giampa said. As a result, the prison placed Hamilton on suicide watch on March 16.
That's when the downward spiral began.
Hamilton was denied food.
Denied recreational time.
Sprayed with a fire extinguisher in his cell.
Stripped of his prison clothes.
And through it all, constantly taunted by prison guards.
"The whole time, they (the prison guards) are telling him (Hamilton), 'You should just kill yourself. You told us you're going to kill yourself. Why don't you just kill yourself?'," Giampa said, based on eyewitness testimony.
On March 17 at 3 p.m., the guards took Hamilton off suicide watch, a decision that violates Department of Corrections (DOC) state guidelines, Giampa said.
"It was against the protocol to remove him (Hamilton) from suicide watch without a psychiatric evaluation," said Giampa.
Instead of following the rules, prison staff gave Hamilton one sheet and one set of clothes, Giampa said. Less than 24 hours later, around 11 a.m. on Friday, March 18, Hamilton was found dead. He had hanged himself with his sheet in his cell.
And when the guards discovered Hamilton hanging in his cell, Giampa said a witness watched as the guards waited at least two full minutes before going inside to cut him down while waiting for a supervisor.
"He was just a kid," Giampa said. "They put him in solitary housing, and he ultimately died up there."
Prison remains secretive about Lonnie Hamilton's death
Giampa represents Hamilton's family, who were never notified of Hamilton's death. The family only became aware of his passing on May 6 - nearly two months later - after they became concerned that they could not reach him. The family went on the Internet, searched the correctional facility's Web site and saw their son listed as deceased.
"I'm thinking, 'This can't be right. It has to be some sort of typo or joke or whatever.' So we start reaching out to the facility" his father, Lonnie Hamilton, said in an interview with NY News 1. "Days later, they finally say he is deceased."
Marcy Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y. claims it tried to reach the family and notify them of Hamilton's death, but could not find a contact number. The correctional facility then buried Hamilton's body in a cemetery near the prison on Old River Road.
"The issue is they never told the parents," Giampa said. "He died and they just buried him on the prison's grounds and they never notified anyone that he was dead."
Hamilton's family eventually got his body back and held a proper funeral for him on Sept. 12 in the Bronx. But the correctional facility continues to stonewall the family, refusing to explain exactly what happened in the days leading up to Hamilton's death on March 18.
"The facility is not giving any information about what happened," Giampa said.
What witnesses saw before Hamilton's death
An eyewitness at the facility described in detail exactly what happened to Hamilton days before he died in prison. An eyewitness told Giampa that prison guards punished Hamilton because they thought he was lying about wanting to kill himself.
"They (the prison guards) didn't really believe him and took him off suicide watch," Giampa said.
The guards began punishing Hamilton by refusing to feed him. "They stopped feeding him and they were using that as a form of punishment," Giampa said.
"Then they started spraying him with a fire extinguisher through the hole (in a prison door) where they feed you through," Giampa said. "After they started spraying him down, they took his clothes and turned on the air conditioner to cool him down and make him uncomfortable."
"Then they stopped letting him out," Giampa said. "You're allowed one hour out of your cell per day for recreation."
"And the whole time, they keep telling him to kill himself," Giampa said.
Correctional facility failed to follow rules
At the time of Hamilton's death, he was taking four different antidepressant medications, Giampa said. He also noted that Hamilton had been placed on suicide watch at least once before his death and had spent an extended period of time housed in SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) at Marcy Correctional Facility.
Due to Hamilton's age, Giampa said Hamilton should have only been housed in SHU for no more than 45 days. Instead, Hamilton spent well over the 45-day maximum time in SHU. That's because the prison figured out a way around the rules.
"As soon as they (prison guards) move you - say for a psychiatric evaluation - you start at zero (days) again," Giampa said. "So rather than serving 45 days in solitary confinement, he served much more than that in solitary because they would briefly move him and start him back at zero. He (Hamilton) never should have been in there that long. This never should have happened."
Giampa believes prison guards kept putting the 22-year-old back in solitary confinement because they were retaliating against Hamilton, who raised issues with the prison about his treatment by certain guards.
Another breach of protocol involves the prison's decision to remove Hamilton from suicide watch on March 17 after placing him on suicide watch the day before. Under DOC guidelines, Giampa said correctional facilities must have the inmate evaluated by a mental health professional within 48 hours and only the mental health staff can discontinue the suicide watch.
"He (Hamilton) was on suicide watch for less than 24 hours," Giampa said. "They pulled him off without him seeing anyone. It was completely against protocol to remove him."
Family conducts independent investigation
The family had an independent autopsy done of Hamilton's body. However, it's unclear how much information the autopsy will reveal because Hamilton's body "was not embalmed or preserved in any way," Giampa said.
Giampa also believes the correctional facility didn't try hard enough to reach Hamilton's family after his death.
"At all times he was in contact with his family, he was living with the family. Before he was living with the father, he was living with the mother. He was a kid, and at no point was he living on his own. How hard is it to get in touch?" Giampa said in an interview with News Channel 2.
And because Marcy Correctional Facility claims it's conducting its own internal investigation, Giampa said the family has no access to documents detailing exactly what happened to Hamilton.
"They haven't given the family any documentation, like incident reports, or death reports. Under the current directives of the DOC there are certain forms they must fill out in order to document the death of any inmate, whether by natural causes or homicide. . . all of which we have no access to at this point," Giampa said in an interview with News Channel 2.
Hamilton was serving a 2- to 6-year prison sentence for robbery in the third degree. "He (Hamilton) was involved in strong-arming a Chinese delivery guy for his money," Giampa said. "He was supposed to get out next year at the latest."
Abuse in prisons, inmate suicide remains serious problems
Complaints about mistreatment of inmates at Marcy Correctional Facility and other New York prisons have been expressed for years. The New York Times ran a series of articles last year highlighting abusive prison guards in New York State prisons. Also last year, The Marshall Project published an article about abusive prison practices that highlighted 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.
And prison suicides have been on the rise in recent years, especially in New York State, where the third-highest number of prison suicides occurred between 2001 and 2013 compared to other states. During that time period, 165 inmates in New York prisons committed suicide, according to the latest statistics compiled by U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
During that same time period, the number of prisoners in state and local prisons nationwide who committed suicide has risen steadily since 2008 and reached its second-highest total in 2013. That year, a total of 519 prison inmates committed suicide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Complete statistics located below.)
NBC News highlighted this shocking trend in an article that noted that prison suicides kill more inmates than homicides, overdoses and accidents combined. That story ran in 2013. Three years later, the issue of prison suicides remains a serious problem, judging from the tragic death of Lonnie Hamilton.
"This situation should never have happened," Giampa said. "Lonnie Hamilton should still be alive."