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Families file suits in inmate suicides

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 1:41 a.m.

The estates of two former Armstrong County Jail inmates who committed suicide in solitary confinement filed lawsuits against the institution, county and several officials in federal court on Friday.

The families of the late Tyler Roberto Emigh and the late Tyler Lee Watterson, who both hanged themselves in their cells while in solitary confinement at the Armstrong County Jail, each alleged wrongful death because of neglect from the jail's medical staff and guards in their separate lawsuits, both filed by Kittanning-based attorney Gregory Swank.

The Emigh estate also retained Leechburg-based attorney Charles Pascal Jr.

Each case is filed against Armstrong County, Warden David Hogue, prison doctors, physician's assistant Louis Gaston, the Armstrong-Indiana Mental Health-Mental Retardation, the Family Counseling Center of Armstrong County and the Armstrong County Prison staff, alleging the wrongful deaths of both Watterson and Emigh.

Each estate is seeking damages in excess of $150,000 for wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, expense, loss of society and companionship, attorney's fees and punitive damages.

Both cases allege guards could not adequately monitor Emigh and Watterson because the one window into their cells was covered and that each man was denied access to mental health services, Swank said.

“They're both seeking damages for wrongful death and would also like to see some changes made in how they do things at the jail,” Swank said. “We want to see a situation where troubled young people in jail are sufficiently monitored, which means the jail personnel should be trained how to react to their needs and must know how to identify people with mental health issues and those who are suicidal.

“We're not saying the jail should be a country club, but basic human services should be provided to these people, and guards should be able to monitor them adequately.”

Armstrong County Jail Warden David Hogue and county Commissioner Richard Fink, president of the prison board, could not be reached for comment.

The Emigh estate is administrated by his mother, Jackie Emigh, of Kittanning and includes his father, Frank Emigh Jr.

Emigh, 21, was in solitary confinement but was not placed on suicide watch despite being addicted to heroin, exhibiting highly agitated behavior and threatening to commit suicide, according to Swank.

Corrections officers found him hanging by a bedsheet in his cell shortly before 10 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2011.

The lawsuit alleges Emigh, who suffered from mental illness and severe mental distress, consistently requested mental health services through prison counselors and warned prison officials he was suicidal. His requests became more frequent while in solitary confinement, but he was never evaluated by a counselor or psychiatrist, according to the lawsuit.

Watterson died on Nov. 5, 2012, just days before he was scheduled to be released, Swank said. Prior to his release, Watterson was involved in an altercation, which led guards to place him in solitary confinement, Swank said.

Swank said Watterson had a history of mental illness and received mental health services for the majority of his life.

“Watterson put numerous request slips into the counselors' office requesting mental health services, before and during his time in solitary confinement,” Swank said. “None of them were acted upon, and he tied a bedsheet around his neck and bunkbed and hanged himself.

“The guards couldn't see him because the blinds were down.”

Jail officials were able to revive Watterson and took him to a hospital in Pittsburgh. He was in a coma and was placed on life support until he died several days later, Swank said.

Swank expects the case to progress quickly and said he hopes to see it move to a jury trial within the next several months.

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303.

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