Ryan Rideout, 24, of Presque Isle was found hanging in his cell in the Special Management Unit, also known as solitary confinement, at the Maine State Prison in Warren late on Oct. 5, 2006, while serving a 17-month sentence. According to a statement by Maine Public Safety Spokesman Steve McCausland at the time of Rideout’s death, the inmate used a bed sheet to hang himself.

Judgment was entered on April 16, affirming the recommendation of U.S. District Court Judge Margaret Kravchuk, in favor of Rideout’s mother Brenda Choate against defendant Bobby Lee Beard, and awarding Choate $500,000 plus court costs. Beard was one of the guards who discovered Rideout hanging in his cell.

Choate said April 19 that she would continue to seek justice in the case of the death of her son.

Kravchuk found in favor of the other defendants: prison guard Corey Robinson, Correctional Medical Services Inc., Chief of Security and Supervisor of the Special Management Unit James O’Farrell, Deputy Warden Nelson Reilly, former Maine State Prison Warden Jeffrey Merrill, Department of Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson and Deputy Warden Michael Peters.

Defendant judged separately from prison administration

“When my attorney submitted the paperwork to the judge, [Beard] was the only one he was allowed to go after,” said Choate. “The judge threw out everybody else, even the medical staff. With all the evidence we had against the prison, I don’t understand why the judge threw it out.”

Choate said she wanted all those involved in her son’s death to pay for what they did. She said her goal in the case was “to get them out of the prison system so it doesn’t happen to someone else’s kid.”

“This is the third time this has happened in Warren,” she said. “What’s it going to take?”

“I think they all should be held accountable, not just Bobby Beard,” she said. “He lost his job, but what about the rest of them that are still there?”

“The prison administration got off, but we got a judgment against the guard,” said Choate’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, on April 19. “The state paid handsomely for his defense.” Campbell said that Beard had not been found guilty of a crime, and that the state of Maine is responsible for payment of the $500,000 award.

“The attorney general spent $15,000 or so defending the man and has indicated that the state won’t pay,” Campbell said. “This is unconscionable. The state looses many bad guards on the population, defends their misdeeds and then leaves the victim hanging, literally in this case.”

Campbell says Abu Ghraib decision guided court

Campbell said it was likely there was medical malpractice in the death of his client’s son. He said Correctional Medical Services personnel were late in responding to emergency alarms, arrived on the scene without proper equipment, and did not put an oxygen tube down Rideout’s throat in an attempt to keep him alive.

“They waited minutes while he was left hanging before entering the cell,” Campbell said. “They lacked a key to turn the oxygen on, and yet the U.S. District Court found there wasn’t enough evidence to find anyone responsible except the guard.”

Campbell said Rideout was mentally ill and had tried to commit suicide 19 times before his death. He said Rideout should have been housed in the prison’s mental health unit, rather than in the Special Management Unit.

“Dr. Maureen Rubano refused to put him in the mental health unit,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the state’s defense was a carryover from the doctrine of Ashcroft v. Iqbal that insulated the federal government from liability in regard to torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He said the state of Maine was defending Rideout’s torturers and then denying liability.

“If you leave a guy hanging and say ‘you can do better than that,’ if you know someone’s hanging and ignore all sorts of emergency buzzers, if you are responsible for a prisoner and you don’t have the means to cut him down or resuscitate him, it sounds pretty close to torture to me,” Campbell said. He said the decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal set a very high standard for holding any administrator responsible.

Lawyers disagree over state’s responsibility

Campbell said he had been told in a letter from Assistant Attorney General Diane Sleek that no payment would be made in the case.

“By defending the guard, and denying any coverage for liability, they’re deterring anyone from suing the system,” he said. “No one can afford it. The guards don’t have much money.” He said the state demanded separate council for Beard and prohibited his attorney, David Bischoff, from saying or doing anything contrary to the interest of the Department of Corrections. “It’s in the fee agreement,” Campbell said.

Bischoff said April 20 that he was not at liberty to discuss the payment arrangement for his client and that the state bore no liability in the case.

“The judgment was in favor of all the other state defendants,” Bischoff said. He said the consent order was the product of a settlement negotiation between Beard and Choate, and represented no admission of wrongdoing by the defendant, Bobby Lee Beard.

“There’s a question as to whether the plaintiff will be successful in collecting the judgment,” Bischoff said. He said it was now the plaintiff’s obligation to execute on that order, if Choate wished to do so.

“There’s a whole process through which people obtain judgments,” he said. “There’s always a next step after any kind of judgment.”

“The state is absolutely not liable under this judgment to anyone, more particularly Ms. Choate,” Bischoff said.

“To get the higher-ups is almost impossible,” Campbell said. “That’s the sad part.”

“I don’t understand how come the state is saying that Bobby Beard was acting on his own,” Choate said. “They got him a lawyer and paid for the lawyer.”

“Somebody just doesn’t want to pay up,” she said.

“I could use the money, but that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this so hopefully someone else down the road doesn’t go through it.”

Troubled childhood ends in prison death

Choate said she was 16 when Rideout was born and that he was a difficult child from the start.

“He had a lot of problems,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time but he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was bouncing off the walls and never stood still for five minutes. He had no fear of anything.”

When Rideout was 7 years old, Choate gave him up for adoption.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” she said. “I was told he would have a better life if I gave him up to a family with two parents that didn’t have to rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Food Stamps to support him.” She said she visited the boy regularly for the first three years, not knowing that she had the right to petition to have him returned to her during that period.

At the end of that time the adoptive family stopped her from seeing her son, saying that it was too upsetting for him. Choate said that the adoptive parents abused Rideout and that he was eventually taken into state care. She said she learned of this change when a social worker came to see her and told her that, due allegations made by the adoptive parents, she could never regain custody of her son.

The next time Choate saw Rideout he was 18 years old and already involved in the corrections system. While in state care he had been diagnosed with ADHD. She said she didn’t know when he first got in trouble with the law. Since that time, she said, the two had reestablished their relationship.

Mother calls for prison reform

Choate said she supported a stronger version of the recently debated LD 1611, which establishes a distinction between the treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness and those who might otherwise be considered for segregation in special management units, also known as solitary confinement.

“That’s where my son was,” she said. “I wrote my state representative and she asked me to write a letter [that] she read to the other people on the committee. I think they should have people go in there pretending to have mental disorders, to see what goes on there and what they put people through,” she said.

Choate and Campbell agree that they will pursue the case as far as they can, seeking payment on the judgment against Beard and possibly appealing the other decisions.

“The warden knew what the guards were doing to other inmates and did nothing about it,” Choate said. “Why is [Beard] the only one?”

The Herald Gazette reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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