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Losing a Son in the New York State Prisons



When Lonnie Hamilton became a father, in 1993, he gave the baby his own name, making him Lonnie Hamilton III. Growing up, the boy split his time between his father’s home, in the Bronx, and Georgia, where his mother lived. When he was in the Bronx, he liked to go with his grandmother to the church on Crotona Avenue that his great-grandfather had founded. Lonnie started high school in Georgia, but after he began getting into trouble his father brought him back to the Bronx and enrolled him in the same public high school that he had attended. By now, his son spoke with a Southern accent; friends called him “Georgia.”

The father, who friends call “Ham,” eventually had four children, but Lonnie was the one he would later refer to as “my best friend” and “my shadow.” As a teen-ager, Lonnie was tall and lean. “He could eat for seven people and never gain weight; I’d sit there mad at him,” Ham told me. Lonnie played football, and at his games Ham was always the loudest parent on the sideline, hollering pointers at him. At home, the two would watch sports seated side by side on the sofa. Lonnie was a fan of the Knicks and the Giants; his father always rooted for the opposing team. “Just for the fun of it,” he said. “If his team is losing, I’m throwing popcorn at him; if my team is losing, he’s giving me the business.”

Ham worked as a chef at Fordham University, leaving home each day at four-thirty in the morning, and he helped Lonnie get a job in the school bookstore. But, despite his best efforts, his son found trouble in the Bronx. In the spring of 2013, when Lonnie was nineteen years old, he was arrested twice, accused of robbing food deliverymen. In Ham’s view, his son’s legal troubles stemmed from a desire to belong: “He felt like sometimes he needed to blend in with people, do what the in-crowd is doing.” A judge sentenced Lonnie to two to six years in prison for his crimes.

Lonnie Hamilton III entered the state prison system on January 2, 2015, after spending nineteen months in a city jail. He was assigned to a prison in central New York, two hundred and fifty miles from the Bronx, known as Marcy Correctional Facility. By then he was twenty-one. At the beginning of his imprisonment, he called his father often, but as the months passed he became more secluded. By the spring of 2016, Ham had not heard from him in several months. In early May, he began putting together a care package to mail to Lonnie: clothes for the upcoming warm weather, underwear, sneakers, some of his favorite junk food, like Oreos.

Ham went to the prison system’s Web site to find his son’s inmate number. He typed his son’s name into the inmate-lookup section; next to “Latest Release Date,” he saw “03/18/16 DECEASED.” “I’m, like, that must be wrong,” he recalled. “So I go and start the whole process all over, and it’s coming up ‘DECEASED.’ My head is swivelling a thousand miles an hour. What the hell is going on? So I call up there, and I’m trying to get answers.” That’s how he found out that “DECEASED” was not a mistake: Lonnie was dead.

Getting more information proved nearly impossible. “As I’m talking, these people are hot-potatoing the phone to the next person, to the next person,” he told me. He reached a male officer: “He F.U.-ed me, told me to have a nice day, and hung the phone up on me.” At that moment, Ham was riding in his brother’s car. “This threw me into such a rage, I damn near jumped out the car,” he said. His brother told him about an app that records telephone calls, and he started using it as he called around the prison.

Eventually, he reached Deputy Superintendent Mark Kinderman. “We did everything we could to try to get some kind of response, to try to track someone down,” Kinderman told him. “We tried a lot of different family members. . . . Every number we had was called, was called multiple times.” The father acknowledged the difficulty of tracking people down by cell phone—“a lot of people’s numbers tend to change”—but he asked why, if nobody could reach him on the phone, he had not received a letter notifying him of his son’s death.

Kinderman did not answer the question. “If a mistake was made, we’re very, very sorry,” he said. “But I’m going to say at this point we tried virtually everything.” When an inmate dies and the family cannot be reached by phone, New York State prison protocol requires that a certified letter be sent to two or more relatives. But Ham never received a letter. “We’re talking March 18th, and the only way we find out is because we go online,” he said. Before the call ended, he asked one last question: “Can you explain to me how he died?” Kinderman promised to get him that information.

Two days later, when Ham called back, Kinderman told him: “Your son took his own life. He had a history, when he was in the department, of mental-health issues. He had been receiving treatment, on and off, for a period of time. And when he did this, the staff did discover him, and they went, in my opinion, really, you know, well above and beyond. It really affected them at the time that it happened, and they did everything they could to resuscitate and revive him.”

A few moments later, Ham asked, “How did he commit suicide?”

“He hung himself,” Kinderman said.

Lonnie was twenty-two years old.

Ham suspected that he was not getting the full story of his son’s death, so he hired an attorney, Zachary Giampá. On Wednesday, Giampá filed a lawsuit on his behalf against New York State, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and Marcy Correctional Facility. The lawsuit alleges negligent supervision, wrongful death, and “loss of sepulcher,” for failing to give Ham the opportunity to bury his son. When Ham first heard about Lonnie’s death, his son had already been underground for six weeks, buried in the Marcy prison cemetery, dressed in a prison uniform.

After hiring a lawyer, Ham’s first priority was to claim his son’s body. The process took four months—the lawyer had to obtain a court order—but on September 8th he stood in the Marcy prison cemetery, watching as a backhoe dug into the ground. When a plywood box was lifted out, he could see Lonnie’s name written on the front with a marker. He was not convinced that his son had taken his own life, so he had an independent autopsy done; it confirmed that the death was a suicide.

On September 12th, the family held a funeral at the Rapture Preparation Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the church that had been founded by Lonnie’s great-grandfather, Bishop Ernest Crooms. Crooms died two years ago, at eighty-nine. “One thing I am glad is he did not have to witness this,” Linda Hamilton Randolph, Crooms’s daughter and Lonnie’s grandmother, told me. “It would’ve been very, very, very difficult for him.” The local cable channel NY1, which had reported on Ham’s discovery of his son’s death, also covered the funeral.

Ham continued to press for more information. Finally, last December, a packet of documents from the New York State Police arrived at his lawyer’s office. The records revealed that, one month before his death, Lonnie was “stating he wants to hurt himself” and had been “combative w/security.” Somebody noticed “visible marks of self-mutilation” on his forearms. He was prescribed three medications: Prozac, Haldol (an anti-psychotic), and Depakote (a mood stabilizer).

On March 15, 2016, while in solitary confinement, Lonnie tried to “tie [a] sheet around his neck.” He was placed on suicide watch, which meant that he was not given any sheets or clothes—just a tear-proof smock to wear, and a tear-proof blanket. The next day, March 16th, he was taken off suicide watch, but he remained in solitary confinement, in Cell 30.

On March 18th, when an officer came around to find out which inmates wanted to go outdoors for “rec,” Lonnie signed up. (Inmates in solitary confinement are allotted one hour of rec each day; they spend the rest of the day locked in their cells.) Officer Joseph Mead was supposed to take out the inmates who had requested rec, but he never got to go outside. “At each cell I went to, including inmate Hamilton’s, the inmate was in bed sleeping,” Mead later told the state police in a sworn statement. (None of the prison employees named in this story agreed to be interviewed.) That was around 7:45 A.M. Later that morning, when Lonnie learned that he had not been given his rec, he became irate, hollering and banging inside his cell.

Lunchtime was at 10:45 A.M., but the prison guards did not feed him. When Correction Officer Mead came through with a food cart to distribute lunch trays, he skipped Lonnie’s cell. (He later told the state police, “Hamilton refused his lunch.”) When another correction officer, Alfred Zeina, came through with a second set of trays, he, too, withheld Lonnie’s meal. (“C.O. Mead told me that Hamilton refused his lunch,” Zeina later said.) Lonnie started yelling, begging for his food, according to three inmates who later spoke to the state police. One recalled, “30 cell was kicking and banging and carrying on for at least 15 minutes about not getting his chow.”

In his cell, Lonnie had tied a torn strip of bedsheet to a vent in his ceiling, and then he tied the other end around his neck. At about 11:24 A.M., while making rounds, Officer Mead looked inside Lonnie’s cell and saw him hanging from the ceiling. “I observed his left leg on the bed and his right leg on the floor,” Mead later told the state police. “My partner arrived immediately at which time we both thought he may still be conscious due to the fact that his hands were clenched into fists.”

They did not immediately order the door to be opened but instead decided that “assistance was needed,” Mead said, “due to the inmate’s past history.” A third officer radioed the sergeant, who arrived in about two minutes. Outside Cell 30, the sergeant called out Lonnie’s name, got no response, then ordered the door opened. By the time the men cut him down and started C.P.R., it was too late. Lonnie Hamilton was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:36 P.M.

Ten months later, on a January afternoon, Ham sat slumped in a chair in his lawyer’s office, in the Bronx. “They say what don’t kill you will make you stronger. I don’t know if this is making me stronger, but I surely feel like I’m dead,” he said. He is a large, heavyset man—“I might weigh as much as a Prius”—but he showed none of the strength one might associate with a person that size. His eyes were red from crying. Four months had passed since he had gone to a prison cemetery to claim his son’s body. But he still appeared to be in a state of shock and confusion. “To see him come out of the earth without seeing him go down?” he said. “That blew my mind.”

His son’s body was brought back to the Bronx, and he had seen it before the funeral. “I had to look at him,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t have did it, but I had to do it.” The body had not been embalmed and had so decomposed—the skin ruptured, the innards pushing out—that it was barely recognizable. Four months later, that final memory of his son still haunts the father. “He’s always popping up in my head,” he says. “I have a hard time closing my eyes.” He can no longer fall asleep easily, and when he does fall asleep he often wakes up after an hour or two. On the sofa in the living room, where he and Lonnie used to watch sports together, some days he now finds himself at three A.M., unable to sleep, watching “SportsCenter” by himself.




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