Suit alleges employee with more than a dozen prior felony convictions smuggled drugs into the facility, failed to do required check-ins.
For almost nine months, authorities have been silent about what caused the death of a teenager incarcerated in New York — a rare incident among juvenile detention facilities nationwide. Caprist McBrown was found unresponsive last Oct. 27 in the Capital District Juvenile Secure Detention Facility near Albany. Law enforcement initially only indicated there were no signs of “foul play,” and that the 19-year-old died of “natural causes.”
Now, in a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit filed late last week, McBrown’s family alleges that a staffer with a lengthy felony conviction record — identified as “John Doe 1” — provided the teen with a “lethal dosage” of the powerful, dangerous pain medication fentanyl without a prescription.
Citing a late October autopsy, court documents say a combination of fentanyl and the antidepressant Trazodone, which detention facility staff had given McBrown as a “sleep aid,” resulted in “severe pulmonary edema,” or fluid in the lungs.
“We tried to avoid filing a lawsuit,” Daniel Smalls, attorney to the McBrown estate, said in an interview. “But in these circumstances, we believe when everything comes out, everybody will see egregious actions.”
The suit, first reported by the Albany Times-Union, alleges McBrown was left unattended by John Doe 1 and another staffer for nearly two hours after being escorted to his room “feeling ill,” despite a policy requiring 15-minute check-ins. Emergency responders were also delayed after being sent to the wrong entrance.
The damages-seeking legal complaint filed July 7 concludes: “As a direct and proximate case of defendants negligent hiring, supervision and retention, plaintiffs have sustained in the past and will sustain in the future, pain and suffering, serious psychological and emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and loss of future financial support.”
The eight defendants include the Capital District facility, two unnamed staffers, one former director, the facility’s nonprofit operator, Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth and related entities.
The suit also accuses a statewide watchdog agency, the Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs, of clearing for hire the detention staffer who “smuggled” drugs into work despite having 14 prior felony convictions.
The Justice Center — which is also investigating McBrown’s death — declined to comment on the litigation. Berkshire Farm Center and the former director also named as a defendant, Joseph Mancini, did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. Reached by phone on Wednesday, the executive director for a four-county consortium that contracts Berkshire to run the Capital District facility also declined to comment.
Detention problems locally and nationally
The most recent available federal data suggests deaths of incarcerated youth are rare — with eight reported nationwide between October 2017 and October 2018. Still, oversight has been found lacking: A recent U.S. Senate investigation condemned the federal government’s inadequate tracking of mortality in correctional facilities.
Lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates in New York have raised concerns about adult facilities’ failure to release information about fatalities. Legislation introduced last week by Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D) requires adult prisons to notify the public within 24 hours of an incarcerated person’s death.
Despite the rarity of deaths in juvenile facilities, there have also been alarming recent reports of fentanyl overdoses, and staff and youth illicitly bringing the synthetic opioid inside.
In May, 18-year-old Bryan Diaz was found dead of an apparent overdose in a Los Angeles County juvenile hall, contributing to the facility’s upcoming closure. Last month, four more youth in the county’s juvenile halls survived overdoses on either Percocet or fentanyl. In Chehalis, Washington late last year, a 17-year-old boy survived an overdose at a juvenile rehabilitation facility. And in Williams County, Ohio early last year, three officers and four young people were taken to a hospital after fentanyl was reportedly released through a detention center’s air vents.
Dr. Elizabeth Lowenhaupt, a pediatrician and psychiatrist at Brown University who chairs the Juvenile Health Committee of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, said her committee recommends juvenile detention staff be trained to use naloxone-type interventions at least every two years.
The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry all have recommendations for corrections facilities to expand access to overdose treatments like naloxone.
In response to questions about its policies Thursday, an agency spokesperson declined to confirm McBrown’s cause of death, citing pending investigations.
“The health, safety and security of youth in OCFS-licensed programs and facilities remains the top priority for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services,” Solomon Syed, deputy commissioner for public information, stated in an email. “We are terribly saddened by the death at the Capital District Secure Detention Facility.”
He added that state regulations require onsite medical personnel and examination rooms, and a “comprehensive set of ambulatory health services, as well as access to outside services as necessary.” Further, “suspected overdose interventions are handled by onsite medical professionals, and when necessary, local medical services.”
He also said his agency is working to address drug-related contraband issues in the facilities it licenses.
“OCFS is keenly aware of the growing opioid crisis and is working with the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports to enhance responses to any drug-related contraband if they enter OCFS and OCFS-licensed settings,” Syed said.
“This has been a thorough and time-consuming investigation, but we will leave no stone unturned. Caprist and his family deserve answers, and we are trying to provide them.”— Daniel Belles, Colonie Police Department
Responding to the new allegations against the Capital facility staff, Daniel Belles, a spokesperson for the Colonie Police Department, said the department’s investigation is ongoing, and no charges have been filed in the case.
“Our goal is to determine if there was any wrongdoing which led to his death, and hold those actors accountable if criminal conduct is identified,” Belles stated in an email. “This has been a thorough and time-consuming investigation, but we will leave no stone unturned. Caprist and his family deserve answers, and we are trying to provide them.”
The Colonie Police Department is among several agencies investigating the case, along with the Justice Center and the New York State Commission of Correction.
Yet since last year, the Albany County Coroner and Colonie Police Department have not released the results of McBrown’s autopsy, although the National Association of Medical Examiner states that there should be “full public disclosure of cause and manner of death and/or autopsy report” for all deaths in custody.
In an interview about McBrown’s death, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney — the prosecutor on the teen’s case — said his office had “some concerns about the extent of his medical care and what kind of supervision he had that day.”
The Capital District facility in the hamlet of Loudonville, 4 miles north of Albany, typically detains young people ages 13 to 20 who have been accused of the most serious crimes, as they await outcomes of their cases. The McBrown estate’s lawyer said resolution in his case had been held up by pandemic court delays.
Administered by four counties through the nonprofit Capital District Regional Planning Commission and operated under contract by the nonprofit Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, its average daily population has fluctuated between eight and 13 youth from across the state, according to Children and Family Services, which licenses and regulates the facility.
Children and Family Services placed the facility under heightened scrutiny in February due to violations of staffing and maintenance requirements. State officials expressed concerns about “visible mold” in “unsanitary” bathrooms, according to documents obtained by this outlet. Youth were “held in their rooms for extended periods of time” without family visits and “regulatorily required programming, recreation, exercise” reads an early 2022 program improvement plan.
‘I don’t believe he knew what he was signing up for.’
McBrown could have served up to 10 years for his role as the youngest of numerous co-defendants in the 2020 murder of Jennifer Ostrander, and he did not fire the shot that killed the mother of seven — which “speaks volumes to the decisions we make and how isolated incidents can have a serious impact on your future,” attorney Smalls said. “But that doesn’t mean that isolated incident should have been a death sentence.”
Schenectady County’s Carney, the prosecutor in the Ostrander case, had similar words of compassion.
“It’s just a tragedy,” Carney said of McBrown’s death. “I don’t believe he knew what he was signing up for,” when McBrown joined a caravan of cars headed to Ostrander’s house, said Carney.
He secured a guilty plea from the teen in 2021 for conspiracy, weapons possession and reckless endangerment charges. Because it was his first criminal offense, McBrown may have been a candidate for a special legal status known as “youthful offender,” Carney noted, which would have sealed his record.
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit by McBrown’s family, Alice Green, executive director and founder of the Albany-based Center for Law and Justice expressed concern that authorities had not informed the public about the cause of McBrown’s death.
“We’re extremely concerned and disappointed that the public has not gotten any information about his death,” Green said. “All we’ve been hearing is that there were so many problems at the facility. And we don’t know if it’s related or what, and we’re still sending kids and putting them in those programs.”