HELENA — The family of a man who killed himself at the state prison in Deer Lodge is suing the state, claiming the prison ignored his previous suicide attempts and failed to address his mental health issues.
Matthew Brandemihl was found dead in his cell on Sept. 24, 2014. A lawsuit filed by his brother and father and on behalf of his three children claims Brandemihl, who was 32 years old, tried to kill himself at least three times since being arrested in Gallatin County after violating his probation.
The wrongful-death lawsuit, filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court last year, claims the prison was negligent and engaged in cruel and unusual punishment. It seeks unspecified monetary damages for emotional pain and distress and mental suffering, as well as lost wages and contribution to care for Brandemihl’s children. According to a Belgrade News report from 2014, Brandemihl would have been eligible for parole about a year after his death.
In a court filing from March 21 of this year, the state denies claims made in the lawsuit. The state also said Nathaniel Brandemihl, the deceased's brother, does not have any legal authority to bring a lawsuit and that the statute of limitations has expired. Dale Brandemihl, the father, also joined in the suit against the prison.
Brandemihl was arrested in May 2013 after he led police on a high-speed chase in a stolen car, eventually crashing, stealing another car and then running into the Tobacco Roots. He turned himself over to law enforcement officers after a search.
According to the lawsuit, Brandemihl attempted suicide at the Gallatin County jail by biting a two-inch hole in his wrist. At the time he told an officer he believed he was the son of God and had been alive 1,000 years. He also said he believed his brother was the devil and capable of possessing other people’s bodies, the jail was designed to “keep his mind locked up” and someone or something had erased his memory.
After Brandemihl was transferred to Montana State Prison on May 12, 2014, a nurse who conducted a clinical intake assessment wrote he was “sad,” “depressed” and “dysthymic,” according to the lawsuit.
On June 20, 2014, he became agitated at the prison infirmary and refused to leave when asked. He declared his name was “Jesus” and accused prison staff of trying to poison his food and water. He was subdued and placed in a locked housing unit, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims a prison investigator recommended discipline instead of mental health treatment, concluding Brandemihl’s behavior was “not symptomatic of a mental illness that would prevent knowledge of his actions.” Brandemihl was placed in locked housing and solitary confinement.
It’s unclear what documents the lawsuit is citing. In its response the state says its disciplinary investigator disciplined Brandemihl because he had no symptoms of a mental illness. The state also said it does not know what the lawsuit means by “solitary confinement” because that is not a housing designation used at the prison.
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A 2014 lawsuit filed by ACLU of Montana on behalf of Disability Rights Montana said the prison has solitary confinement cells within locked housing that involve different levels of isolation and sensory deprivation. Prisoners receive meals through a food slot and have little or no access to natural light, according to that lawsuit.
A doctor refered to as Dr. Edwards in the lawsuit dismissed Brandemihl’s issues as “feigned psychosis,” according to the suit, saying he was not mentally ill but “probably most unhappy about being incarcerated at this point” and that the behaviors were because of “just frank malingering and being uncooperative” and the side effects of substance abuse.
The state in the response filed in court denied the characterization that Edwards was dismissive and said his report speaks for itself.
Brandemihl attempted suicide again on July 3, 2013, again by trying to chew through his arm and wrist. In an email dated July 8, 2014, registered nurse and certified correctional health professional Jill Buck wrote “the mental health department feels (Brandemihl) knowingly, willingly and purposefully engaged in self-harm behavior and should be held accountable for his actions.”
At a disciplinary hearing three days later, Brandemihl was found guilty of infractions and sentenced to 10 days in locked housing. On July 18, 2013 Brandemihl attempted suicide again, chewing his arm and wrist and taking 50 multivitamin pills. He was placed on a behavioral management plan. The lawsuit characterized the measure as “punitive,” something the state disputes. Brandemihl was taken to Deer Lodge Hospital, where records show a “psychiatric follow-up at the prison” was recommended, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims Brandemihl told an investigator four days later, “Look at me, I need serious medical attention. You guys just throw me in the hole. You’re hoping I … die. You’re trying to kill me.” The state denied that characterization of the investigator's report.
Brandemihl was again placed in locked housing for 11 days. By Aug. 30 he reopened his wounds. The lawsuit claims he did not receive proper follow-up care, something the state denies.
On Sept. 23, 2014, the lawsuit claims he was found sleeping in his cell “near a plastic bag filled with blood,” something the state denies.
Brandemihl was later placed in locked housing. A corrections officer said he found two bottles of orally ingestible pain reliever and two plastic deodorant rolls, which Brandemihl had broken to create sharp pieces of plastic.
The following day prison records say he was found in a pool of blood with handwritten notes near his body and had been dead for several hours. A response filed in court from the state says it does not have enough information to admit or deny if he had been dead several hours.