A Honolulu lawyer plans to ask a federal judge to appoint a special master to force the state to provide better mental health care to inmates.

A prisoner with a longstanding mental disability apparently killed himself in his cell in the Hilo jail last week in what is believed to be the eighth suicide in a state correctional facility in the last three years.

Drake Terlep, 55, was housed in a cell with two other inmates, and staff at the jail told family members Terlep had been a target of harassment by other inmates in the overcrowded Hawaii Community Correctional Center, according to his brother Jason Terlep.

Jason Terlep said the jail staff told him Drake was discovered by one of his cellmates, who triggered an alarm and was unwrapping some sort of ligature from around Drake’s neck when staff arrived at their cell.

Komohana area located at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo.
Drake Terlep was found unresponsive in his cell at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo and was later pronounced dead. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in a written statement that HCCC staff received a call for assistance at 4:30 a.m. Friday and found a man “unresponsive in his cell.”

Medical and security staff administered aid at the scene and were able to reestablish a pulse, according to the statement, but Terlep was pronounced dead at Hilo Medical Center at 5:19 a.m. Friday.

Terlep’s death is believed to be a suicide, according to a corrections employee familiar with the matter. The employee declined to be identified because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

Suicides in state facilities are difficult to confirm because the state only recently began officially announcing the deaths of inmates, and corrections officials generally do not indicate how each prisoner has died.

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Drake Terlep was awaiting a mental evaluation to determine if he was mentally fit to proceed to trial on charges of first-degree theft and unauthorized control of a propelled vehicle for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. He had a long record of nonviolent, mostly petty crimes such as trespassing.

Better Mental Health Services Needed

Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz, who is suing the state in federal court to try to force the correctional system to provide better mental health services, said he now plans to ask a federal judge to appoint a special master “to take over and run the mental systems in the prisons, because they’re just in terrible shape.”

“I get calls every week from staff members complaining about their inability to provide services to people who need it,” he said. “They’re understaffed, they’re not given any support.”

HCCC would be covered by any order in the case because Seitz’s class-action federal court lawsuit covers all Hawaii prisons and jails, he said.

Drake Terlep before he was arrested. (Courtesy: Jason Terlep)

“The mental health services across the board are just absolutely atrocious,” Seitz said. He added the prisons and jails cannot transfer mentally ill inmates to the Hawaii State Hospital because the hospital is already overcrowded.

Jason Terlep said the family had expected Drake to be released in about two weeks.

“He just keeps going back in for stupid stuff, very minor stuff, the neighbors call on him because he’s around, disturbing the peace,” Terlep said. “The cops, everybody knows he has a mental health history.”

Terlep said his brother suffered a severe head injury in 1997 when he had been drinking and dove into the ocean, striking his head on a rock in an area of Keaukaha in Hilo known locally as “4 Miles.” He was 30 at the time.

Terlep said his brother had graduated from high school with honors and played shortstop on his high school baseball team, but he never snapped back to his old self after his injury.

“The doctor said he’ll never be the same, and eventually you deteriorate, using pills, or whatever, he goes to street drugs, I don’t know, he just deteriorates,” said Jason Terlep. “He doesn’t need to be jailed.”

Troubled Past

Lane Gammill, who lived next door to Drake’s mother in a senior housing complex in Keaau, said Drake would hang around the complex, sleep in the laundry room or on the driveway outside, yell and bang things around, and smoke marijuana or methamphetamine.

Gammill gave him food, juice, slippers and toilet paper to try to help him when he sometimes knocked on her door, but he behaved so inappropriately that she finally filed for a temporary restraining order last spring to keep him away from her.

“I believe Drake is severely mentally ill and doesn’t seem to have any services lined up whatsoever to help him,” she said in her filing. “Hopefully this TRO will be quickly put in place and a social worker can find him alternative housing and services.”

Jason Terlep said his brother was was usually a victim on the street with “all these people ripping him off, talking down on him, picking on him,” and Hilo jail staff told Jason that Drake got pretty much the same treatment at HCCC.

Terlep said the family had plans to pick him up when he was released and cannot understand why he would kill himself. Jason believes “something went down” in that cell, but doesn’t know exactly what. “My brother didn’t need to be housed like that,” he said.

“He’s loved,” Jason Terlep said. “He’s missed.”

Known suicides in state correctional facilities in recent years include Jimuel Gatioan, who died after hanging himself at the Oahu Community Correctional Center on April 4; Llewellyn Foster Jr., William Robert Morrison, Brandon Tapac Jonathan Pico, and Destiny Brown, who all died at the Maui Community Correctional Center during the past three years; and Diamond Simeona-Agoo, who hanged herself at OCCC last year.

Some suicides in state correctional facilities have proven to be quite costly for the state. The Legislature last year agreed to pay $550,000 to settle a lawsuit over the death of Daisy Katsitati, 26, who hanged herself at MCCC on Oct. 12, 2017.

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