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Missouri Prisons Ordered To Pay 60k To Mother For Withholding Records Related To Son's In-Custody Death

The Missouri Department of Corrections has been ordered to 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, after 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. That amount could grow, reports the Missouri Independent, 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.

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 Ardini 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%.


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