A Decent Burial

NEVA STAMPLEY'S TWO-YEAR battle to improve the way Minnesota prisons treat mentally ill inmates came to a dramatic end Monday in a Washington County Courthouse, where the Department of Corrections agreed to pay her $168,500 and to make significant policy changes. Stampley filed a wrongful death suit in 1994 after the death of her mentally ill son, Gregory, in a Stillwater prison cell ("The Lonesome Death of Greg Stampley," 2/16/94).

Stampley had a long history of schizophrenia. He had already been committed to mental institutions before a violent episode with his daughter landed him an eight-year prison sentence in 1993. In prison he deteriorated markedly; guards finally placed him in an observation cell after noticing him walking around naked and "acting and speaking bizarrely." During the next five days--while officials waited for a slot to open up at the maximum-security Oak Park Heights facility's tiny mental health unit--Stampley's condition worsened. He refused food on some occasions and, by some accounts, was denied food on others. The water was shut off in his cell. He was maced at least twice and strapped to a four-point restraint board. In his last days Stampley was seen lying on his bunk naked, growling and masturbating; he ate from the floor and drank from the toilet.

After guards found Stampley dead, a medical examiner ruled that he'd died of a perforated gastric ulcer. Warden Dennis Benson steadfastly maintained that his staff did nothing wrong; even now, Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Jim Bruton points out that the settlement of the case "indicates that the department has no admission of any wrongdoing." He emphasizes that Washington County authorities and the coroner's office determined that Stampley "died of natural causes, no negligence involved" and adds that settling the case was simply the cheapest way to go. Privately, however, officials have taken steps to make the observation cells easier to surveil, and a few employees were reportedly disciplined. There were also two investigations of the situation--one by the ombudsman's office and one by a specially appointed committee--both of which yielded criticisms of staff and DOC policies.

Neva Stampley wanted those policies changed. Though the DOC had reportedly tried to settle her lawsuit with cash for some time, she held out for new rules. On Monday, Stampley ended up with much of what she wanted. There will be an outside Mental Health Review Board to review policies and procedures, a Health Care Advisory Committee to advise the commissioner of corrections, 24-hour psychological services, a more stringent policy on use of the restraint board, added training for guards, and free phone calls for mentally ill inmates in the event of an emergency. The last provision is especially important to Stampley, since she didn't know about her son's condition until after he had died. (DOC officials now claim that some of these changes were being made irrespective of the suit.)

"It wasn't about the money," she says. "But you have to ask for the money to get them to do something. This has been hard on me. It's something I couldn't put behind me at all. I can't bring my son back, but I hope [the settlement] does something to prevent this from happening to anyone else."

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