The Missouri Department of Corrections must pay more than $60,000 for refusing to give records to a mother trying to find out how her son died in 2021 while in state custody.

And that amount could grow, both because the department lost an appeal of an order finding it violated the Sunshine Law and because the mother is now suing the state for wrongful death in her son’s death by suicide.

The wrongful death lawsuit asserts the department, its officers and contract medical provider were “negligent,  derelict, reckless and in breach of their ministerial duties” in the death of Jahi Hynes.

In a decision delivered Tuesday, the Western District Court of Appeals upheld a trial court judgment that the prison agency committed a “knowing and purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law” to prevent Willa Hynes of St. Louis from learning her son hanged himself with a bedsheet while in solitary confinement.

The department asserted the records were inmate medical records protected from disclosure and its investigation was not a law enforcement investigation as defined in the Sunshine Law. The appeals court rejected the first argument and did not address the second.

“We find there was substantial evidence from which the trial court could have found the DOC acted with the intent to achieve some purpose by violating the Sunshine Law, namely, to hinder Hynes from pursuing a potential civil claim against the DOC relating to her son’s death,” Judge Edward Ardinin wrote in the unanimous decision. “Such conduct amounts to a purposeful violation.”

The ruling sets a precedent for the department’s Sunshine Law policies at a time when deaths are increasing in state prisons. Activists for prison reform have tracked deaths and found that deaths have increased by one-third as prison populations fell nearly 25%.

From 2012 to 2014, there was an average of 31,442 incarcerated people in state prisons. Deaths averaged 89 per year. Over the past three years, with an average of 23,409 incarcerated people in state prisons, deaths have averaged 122 per year.

There have been more than 100 deaths in Missouri prisons in five of the last six years.

Michelle Smith, director of the Missouri Justice Coalition, said at a January memorial service for deceased inmates that the department routinely withholds information about deaths from family members.

“We are trying to raise awareness of the fact that hundreds of people die in Missouri prisons every single year and nothing is done,” Smith said at the memorial service.

On April 1, Hynes filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing the department, its contract medical providers and 11 corrections employees of negligence in allowing her son to possess the bedsheet and failing to conduct required checks on inmates in administrative segregation.

The department used every means possible to block access to information about the death, attorney Linda Powers, who represents Hynes, said in an interview with The Independent.

“They are doing death investigations internally without involving outside law enforcement and then skirting the requirements of the Sunshine Law that law enforcement produce investigative records by claiming they are not law enforcement,” Powers said. 

Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for the corrections department, declined to answer questions about the department’s Sunshine Law practices and if they have changed as a result of Hynes’ lawsuit. She also declined to comment on the wrongful death lawsuit.

“The department doesn’t comment on litigation,” Pojmann wrote in an email.

The Sunshine Law penalty includes a $5,000 fine for the knowing violation and more than $55,000 in attorney fees.

In her request, Hynes asked for all of her son’s records since his incarceration, plus his medical records, the investigative report on his death, and surveillance video of the area where he was in administrative segregation.

All of the material was turned over late last year, but not before Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green issued an order giving the department five days to comply with his judgment in full. That order was issued after Powers asked Green to enforce the judgment and the records were produced only after she sought contempt sanctions because the department had done nothing for four additional weeks.

The investigative report, Powers said, was a document seemingly written to protect the department from liability, not to relate the truth about Jahi Hynes’ death.

“When you look at the evidence and what the video shows, you can determine what happened,” Powers said.

The video and other documents withheld by the corrections department until the court order form the basis of the factual allegations in the lawsuit, Powers said.

Jahi Hynes was sentenced in 2013 in St. Louis Circuit Court to 13 years in prison for first degree robbery. He was 27 when died April 4, 2021, at the Southeast Missouri Correctional Center in Charleston. 

He had a history of mental health problems, the lawsuit states. In September 2020, while housed at South Central Correctional Center in Licking, he spoke with a mental health professional about extreme mood swings and his history of hospitalizations for attempted suicide. He asked to be put back on psychotropic medications he had not been taking since he was incarcerated.

Jahi Hynes was denied the medication and about three months after his transfer to the Southeast Correctional Center, the lawsuit states, he was cited for a “minor assault” for allowing his food port door to strike a correction officer’s hand, causing abrasions.

He was moved to the administrative segregation unit, and placed on restrictions for allowed personal property intended to prevent inmates from harming themselves. On the first day, Hynes was only to be allowed boxer shorts and eyeglasses, receiving pants, a blanket and a mattress the next day and allowed shoes, socks, and bed sheets on the fourth day.

The lawsuit states that department regulations require checks at least every 30 minutes on inmates in solitary confinement. There were periods of more than five hours where no checks were made, the video surveillance shows, according to the lawsuit.

The surveillance video also shows the ease at which prisoners cut off from contact with other inmates can trade items on strings run from cell to cell in a system called “cadillacing.” 

While he wasn’t supposed to have pants, the video shows an inmate working as a porter giving him a pair of sweatpants taken from Hynes and placed on a hook outside the cell just four hours after being placed in the cell.

One inmate gave Hynes a bedsheet via the cadillacing system and another gave him a T-shirt. The system is elaborate enough to transfer items from one side of the prison wing to the other and from one floor to another.

“From approximately 11:09 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. (April 4), in plain view of the cameras, using the line secured by the offender, the inmates cadillaced items from one side of C-Wing to the other four times,” the lawsuit states.

At 3:26 p.m., Jahi Hynes was found hanging in his cell, from the bedsheet he had received from the other prisoner, wearing the T-shirt and sweatpants. A corrections officer had done a cell check about a half-hour earlier and seen Hynes had the prohibited items.

“None of the defendant correction officers removed the t-shirt, pants or bed sheets that were cadillaced to decedent from decedent’s cell, despite orders mandating that they do so,” the lawsuit states.

The delays in receiving the information compounded Willa Hynes grief over the death of her son, Powers said.

“It is unconscionable,” she said. “Ms. Hynes went two-and-a-half years wondering what happened to her son.”

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