Seven months after 22-year-old Lonnie Hamilton’s death by suicide in solitary confinement at an upstate New York prison, officials from both the Department of Corrections and the State Commission of Correction, a regulatory agency, have refused to release any information about the inmate’s mysterious death.
At 11 am on March 18, Hamilton was alive and being held in solitary confinement at Marcy Correctional Facility in Oneida County, New York. Twenty-two minutes later, he was dead. According to the medical examiner’s report, a copy of which was obtained by Jezebel, Hamilton hanged himself from an overhead metal vent in the ceiling using a torn bed sheet. When corrections officers found his body, an ambulance was called: Hamilton was taken to St. Elizabeth Medical Center and pronounced dead at approximately 12:36 pm; the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office examined his body the next morning. “There was no evidence of foul play or suspicions,” the medical examiner concluded. On March 28, ten days after he died, Hamilton was buried in a plain wooden box in the Marcy Correctional Facility Cemetery. His body was not embalmed.
Hamilton’s family did not learn of his death until May 6, nearly two months later. Even then it was by accident, after weeks of trying to reach him. They looked him up in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community’s online database of inmates, hoping to find out more information about how to send him a letter. There, he was listed as deceased.
“I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be right. It has to be some sort of typo or joke or whatever.’ So we start reaching out to the facility,” his father, who is also named Lonnie Hamilton, told NY1 in May. “Days later, they finally say he is deceased.” The family asked that Hamilton’s body be exhumed, so that he could be buried closer to home, in the Bronx, but the prison refused to comply without a court order.
Upon the death of an inmate, DOCCS Directive #4013 states, the prison’s chaplain or Supervising Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator must “notify the next of kin or another pre-designated individual of the inmate’s death.” If a working telephone number can’t be found, the facility is required to send two certified letters to at least two next of kin or pre-designated individuals. If that proves unsuccessful, it is “recommended” that the facility reach out to local law enforcement officials for help.
Both of Hamilton’s parents are alive: his father lives in the Bronx, at the same address where Hamilton was arrested on robbery charges; his mother lives in Georgia. “In the 11 days between the time Lonnie died and the time he was buried, only two attempts were made by the Facility Chaplain, Reverend Sherman Dunmore to notify the family of Lonnie’s death by calling a non working cell phone twice,” court filings, submitted in late June in support of the family’s petition to exhume the body, state. No letters were sent to either his mother or father, and no attempts were made to contact local police in the Bronx or Georgia. “Also, the body was not embalmed and as such the body continues to decay without the decedent’s family being provided an opportunity to say goodbye,” the filings claim.
The judge’s order returning Hamilton’s body to his family did not come down until late August—two months after the petition was filed.
The Hamilton family’s lawyer, Zachary Giampa, told Jezebel that a notice of claim has been filed alleging loss of sepulcher—that is, that the Department of Corrections’ handling of this case has deprived them of their right to mourn their son. What is more, DOCCS has resisted disclosing any information about Hamilton’s death whatsoever, citing its ongoing investigation. From the June petition:
The facts surrounding the death are mysterious. The decedent allegedly died of asphyxia while in solitary confinement. A toxicology performed by the Medical Examiner found numerous SSRI drugs and anti-psychotics in his blood. Furthermore, upon information and belief the decedent had been expressing suicidal ideations to correctional staff. As such the family would like the opportunity to obtain an independent pathology report while the body is still in a preserved condition and the examination is meaningful.
An anonymous former fellow inmate, who said he was in solitary confinement with Hamilton, told NY1 last week that corrections officers had harassed Hamilton, stripping him down, spraying him with a fire extinguisher, and mocking his pleas for help. “The police was like, ‘Save your breath, ain’t you about to kill yourself?’ They kept telling him like, ‘Ain’t you gonna kill yourself?’ And they like talking about his sisters and family and stuff like that,” the former inmate said.
The regulatory body overseeing the Department of Corrections, called the State Commission of Correction, denied a Freedom of Information Law request from Jezebel for records pertaining to Hamilton’s death on the grounds that the matter “is still under the Commission’s investigation.”
“We have a grieving family,” Giampa told Jezebel in a phone interview. “The prison’s failure to provide any information regarding the death of Lonnie Hamilton furthers the family’s grief. When someone dies, people want information.”
Spokesmen for both SCOC and DOCCS declined Jezebel’s requests for comment.