The estate of a 28-year-old man who killed himself at the state’s largest prison was awarded $1.375 million in damages Tuesday in a case that demonstrated dangerous shortcomings in the care that correctional officials have been providing to mentally ill and suicidal inmates.

The state admitted liability without putting up any defense in the case of Joseph O’Malley, who hung himself in an “observation room” in the medical unit of Halawa Correctional Facility on July 27, 2017.

An expert testified in the case that the isolation being imposed on suicidal inmates at the time was comparable to solitary confinement, which is known to aggravate the symptoms suffered by mentally ill prisoners.

The lawsuit was brought by O’Malley’s adoptive father, Honolulu lawyer Michael O’Malley, who is personal representative of Joseph O’Malley’s estate. Circuit Court Judge John Tonaki set the amount of the award after an online bench trial in January and February.

Michael O’Malley, center, with a picture of his son Joseph O’Malley and members of his legal team including Thomas Otake, left, and Michael Livingston. Michael O’Malley said he plans to press for reforms in the way the prison system treats mentally ill and suicidal inmates. Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2022

In the 10 months leading up to his death, Joseph O’Malley was placed on suicide watch seven times at Halawa, including at least five times for self-mutilation, once when he reported voices were telling him to kill himself and once when he attempted to hang himself, according to the decision in the case.

O’Malley was charged with misconduct in early July for cutting his own wrist with a disassembled finger nail clipper, and prison officials responded by sentencing him to 60 days in lockdown in the prison special holding unit.

He was placed in solitary confinement and kept in an isolation cell called the “observation room” in the Halawa infirmary, where he finally hung himself from the bars of his cell window, according to the court decision.

Michael Livingston, one of the lawyers who sued the state on behalf of the O’Malley estate, said Department of Public Safety has policies and procedures that reflected best practices for caring for suicidal inmates, but those procedures were basically ignored by staff at Halawa.

In fact, to a “shocking” degree, the Halawa staff who were questioned in the case were unaware of the prison policies and procedures they were supposed to follow, he said.

Michael O’Malley told reporters Wednesday that he met with the Honolulu Medical Examiner as part of his investigation in the weeks after his son’s death, and said she told him, “You seem like you’re in a position to do something about this. Go get them. I’m tired of them sending me bodies from Halawa.”

“We wanted to try and do something to ensure that this doesn’t happen to any other family,” O’Malley said. “Joey was a great son. He was loving, he was funny, he was an animal rescuer, he was kolohe (mischievous), he was my adopted son.”

Joseph suffered from significant mental illness that became worse as he became an adult, but “that wasn’t his fault, any more than having a broken arm is someone’s fault,” Michael O’Malley said.  “He was not a throwaway kid. He mattered. No one is, no person is a throwaway person.”

Joseph was arrested for second-degree robbery in 2009 for robbing a cab driver with a replica handgun, failed probation and was entangled in the criminal justice system from then on. He also spent three extended periods in Hawaii State Hospital.

He was sent to the Oahu Community Correctional Center in 2015, and to Halawa in 2016 when his probation was revoked.

Otake said the O’Malley family’s legal team identified an array of policy violations at the prison, and said Joseph should have been transferred to a medical facility for treatment instead of being held at Halawa.

The state has a policy that requires that if a person is so mentally ill that they cannot be cared for appropriately in a prison setting, they must be transferred, Otake said.

“What was shocking is that we learned that, the people that we talked to, they never necessarily even knew that policy, or remembered that happening one time,” Otake said.

Another prison policy says that when someone who is mentally ill harms himself, that person should not be punished for it, Otake said. “There needs to be a therapeutic response, and it was clear that there was punishment going on, which only made things worse.”

Otake also said that expert testimony showed that the medications used by the prison to treat some mental illnesses are “really outdated.”

As for the response from the prison system, Livingston said that “our understanding is that they already have made some changes, although they haven’t been really forthcoming about what those changes have been.”

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a written statement that the department “has sound policy for the care and custody of inmates with mental illness. The Department routinely reviews and updates all policies including the inmate suicide prevention policy which is in accord with national standards.”

Michael O’Malley said that “I still have a giant and permanent hole in my heart” from the death of his son, and he vowed to press for reforms in the way mentally ill, incarcerated people are treated.

“Joey’s story is not over for me,” he said. “My intention is to stay involved. This doesn’t end. Whatever little bit I can do to support, whatever little role I can play to see that we get the necessary reform, I’m not walking away. This is just the beginning for me.”

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