‘Senseless’: Mom sues state DOC after son’s suicide at Monroe prison

The lawsuit alleges systemic failures at the Monroe Correctional Complex led to Anthony Christie’s death in 2019.

Anthony Christie with his son (Family photo)

Anthony Christie with his son (Family photo)

MONROE — Anthony Christie never met a stranger.

Growing up in Ferndale, he could talk up a storm with anyone, even in the grocery store checkout line, his mother Trina Christie said.

He was an artist who welded Christmas presents. He wrote songs for his family, too.

He also lived with mental health issues. And in September 2019, Anthony Christie died by suicide, less than 24 hours after custody officers detained him at the Monroe Correctional Complex. He was 27.

His mother is now suing the state Department of Corrections and various officers in federal court for the alleged negligence that led to her son’s death. In July, the lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court, but was moved to U.S. District Court in Seattle last month.

The complaint claims signs of Anthony Christie’s longtime struggles with mental illness were ignored in the months before his death, despite his family’s repeated calls for help. Public records rebuild a timeline of the final hours of his life, showing custody officers committed “myriad mistakes” in caring for Christie, his family’s lawyer Ryan Dreveskracht said.

An investigation from the Office of the Corrections Ombuds found several problems led to Anthony Christie’s death, including a delay in access to care, failure of communication between staff and to assume responsibility for his care. It concluded his death was “possibly preventable.”

Dreveskracht hopes the lawsuit can “bring attention to the systemic failures of the Department of Corrections … so that, quite frankly, it doesn’t happen again.”

He also wants the outcome to help provide for Anthony Christie’s son, who recently turned 9 and “will now have to grow up without a daddy.”

A Corrections spokesperson declined to comment because the litigation is pending.

In court filings, the department denied any fault for Anthony Christie’s death.

‘Senseless’

Anthony Christie started struggling with depression when he was 16, soon after his father’s death.

So when he got in trouble with the law, his mother was worried. Trina Christie knew he needed distractions. Too much time with nothing to do but think could be trouble.

Anthony Christie came under Department of Corrections supervision in February 2018 after he pleaded guilty to drug possession in Whatcom County. The next month, he got a mental health evaluation, in which he indicated a history of mental health problems and suicidal thoughts. Under Corrections policy, these evaluations are meant to take place every six months.

But according to the lawsuit, that was the only one he received.

A couple months after the evaluation, Trina Christie called her son’s probation officer to alert him to Anthony Christie’s risk of self-harm. The officer told her the information was “very useful,” the lawsuit reads.

In September 2018, the probation officer received an assessment that recommended inpatient treatment for Anthony Christie, but that wasn’t implemented, the complaint alleges.

The next February, Anthony Christie reported to the probation officer’s office with two black eyes. The officer reportedly attributed this to his “recent homeless lifestyle.”

In the ensuing months, her son’s mental health only got worse. By late May 2019, Trina Christie warned the probation officer that his “mental health is out of control,” and called on Corrections to get him treatment before it was too late, according to the lawsuit.

In August, Anthony Christie was convicted of harassment due to an incident with his stepfather. The lawsuit argues the harassment was exacerbated by his mental health issues. The conviction violated the terms of his community custody, so Corrections issued a warrant for his arrest.

A few days later, a nurse administered a mental health screen for Anthony Christie. He said he had a plan to kill himself at some point in the past six months. The nurse indicated he’d be referred to a mental health provider, but records don’t show any such assessment, according to the ombuds report. He was housed in the Monroe prison’s Special Offender unit.

On Sept. 20, 2019, he was held at the Intensive Management Unit, where inmates are held in their cells for 23 hours per day, the lawsuit reports. While there, prison staff are supposed to check on them at least once every 30 minutes on an “irregular schedule.” Health care providers should also visit each inmate daily.

Those rules were not followed, the complaint claims, leading to Anthony Christie’s death less than 24 hours later.

On the afternoon of Sept. 21, custody officers logged cell checks for Anthony Christie at 1:16, 2:16, 3:13 and 4:01, according to the lawsuit. During each, Anthony Christie was laying on the concrete floor with his head lodged between a pedestal and a bed. At the 4:01 p.m. cell check, the officers found him in the same position, with one flip-flop off, revealing a purple foot. That signals lividity, which likely wouldn’t be visible to the human eye until about two hours after death.

Officers did CPR on Anthony Christie for about half an hour until paramedics arrived. He was pronounced dead. He had hanged himself.

“It’s senseless,” Trina Christie said. “I just don’t understand how it could have happened and why he didn’t get help.”

‘Unless things change, he won’t be the last’

At the time of Anthony Christie’s death, medical records in his unit were kept in red folders.

Each time an incarcerated person arrived at the facility, a new red folder was created. Once they’re released or transferred, the folder got placed in a drawer. Records from prior stays weren’t incorporated into new folders, the Office of the Corrections Ombuds report found. So the staff working the day Anthony Christie died were apparently unaware of his history of suicidal thoughts.

The report gave several recommendations for the Department of Corrections:

• Strengthen the processes for identifying those at risk of self-harm;

• Give staff clear guidance on how to respond when a history or risk of self-harm is reported;

• Promote continuity of care so all medical records are available in one place;

• Assign a dedicated mental health provider to the unit where Anthony Christie died;

• And connect at-risk prisoners with mental health providers after release.

In August 2020, the department responded to those recommendations in writing.

It said changes were in the works to ensure people with suicide risk were referred to a mental health professional at intake. The response, signed by then-Secretary Steve Sinclair, also noted prison staff are required to complete suicide awareness training every year.

Sinclair wrote that the agency was reviewing how medical records were shared between facilities.

“Staff reviewing these processes are working to create recommendations to provide efficiency to current process and new implementations that can be worked toward to close any gaps that may currently exist,” the former secretary wrote.

Sinclair noted probation officers have outside resources available to connect people with when they leave custody if they report suicidal thoughts. The agency also reportedly makes mental health referrals to providers that accept Medicaid insurance.

Of 37 deaths in state prisons’ custody in 2019, five were from suicide, according to an ombuds report. In 2018 and 2020, there were two suicide deaths each year.

“There’s a systemic problem with just providing very, very basic, common-sense protections to vulnerable inmates,” said Dreveskracht, the Christie family’s lawyer. “Anthony wasn’t the first, and unless things change, he won’t be the last.”

In a report last year on mental health in state prisons, the ombuds office reported people incarcerated with mental health conditions are often placed in the Intensive Management Unit, where Anthony Christie was reportedly held when he died.

“This practice goes against years of research that has shown that time spent in solitary confinement exacerbates mental health symptoms,” the report reads.

The report recommended reducing the frequency and length of these stays as well as, again, more staff training.

In response, Corrections noted the population staying in this segregated housing has dropped by a third in the past decade. The agency also reported working on pilot projects for less restrictive custody.

‘Empty spot’

These days, Trina Christie is trying to “play dad.”

Sometimes, she sees her grandson staring at pictures of his dad on the wall.

She’ll ask what he’s doing, but he’ll run to the couch and bury his face.

Now they only talk about the good things. The times Anthony Christie took his son fishing, for example. The family tries to grieve through those memories.

Still, Trina Christie sees Anthony everywhere. She’ll come across someone wearing a baseball hat in the grocery store and think it’s him.

It even happens with her grandson, a spitting image for his dad at a young age. She’ll often call him Anthony and apologize.

“It’s OK if you call me Anthony,” he responds. “I would like that, actually.”

She hopes what comes from the lawsuit can try to replace financially what Anthony Christie would’ve provided. The haircuts. The shoes. The school clothes.

“There’s an empty spot in our family for sure,” Trina Christie said.

She knows her son deserved better, so now she’s fighting to make sure another mother doesn’t have to go through the same thing.

“He wasn’t just a DOC number,” she said. “I feel he deserves some compassion.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

Help is available

There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.

If there is an immediate danger, call 911.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: dial 988, or 988lifeline.org.

Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).

The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth: thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386.

Mental Health First Aid courses: mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org/get-help.

The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources: snohd.org/200/Suicide-Prevention.

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