PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A disability rights advocacy group is investigating the death of Charlene Liberty, a former Eleanor Slater Hospital patient who died suddenly two months after she was discharged.
Disability Rights Rhode Island, an advocacy group with an investigatory authority, outlined its probe in a letter sent to state officials last month. The group explained there was sufficient probable cause to launch the investigation because the 38-year-old woman, who had been a patient at the state-run hospital’s psychiatric facility, died so soon after she was discharged earlier this year.
“She was discharged, untreated and unsupported, without even the most fundamental community service she needed to, literally, stay alive,” DRRI executive director Morna Murray said in a statement. “We vow to not let her death be in vain as we investigate the failures of the systems that are intended to protect the most vulnerable among us, and instead too often lead to harm and even death.”
A spokesperson for the agency that runs Slater — the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals — did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening. An obituary published online shows Liberty, of Providence, died on April 7. The DRRI investigation was first reported by The Providence Journal.
Murray said Liberty became “trapped in a system that failed to meet her needs and led to the Rhode Island prison system where she joined the 15%-20% of inmates with serious mental illness.”
At the age of 36, Liberty was placed in solitary confinement where she alleged the conditions drove her to “engage in serious self-injurious behaviors, including multiple suicide attempts,” according to a 2019 class-action lawsuit she filed against the R.I. Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit was filed in partnership with the National Prison Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, according to DRRI. The group alleged the Department of Corrections violated patients’ civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act when it placed prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement.
“Eventually that prison cell was replaced with a state psychiatric hospital where she faced new abuses,” Murray explained in her statement.
Target 12 has independently confirmed Liberty was at the center of a controversial contraband search of the hospital’s Benton facility on Dec. 10, when a dozen correctional officers wearing tactical gear entered the psychiatric ward and tossed rooms like prison cells.
At the time, she was placed against a wall and appeared “visibly anxious as 11 members of the search team surrounded her, in an apparent show of intimidation,” according to a separate DRRI complaint filed at the time that didn’t name Liberty.
“During her search, she was directed to step into her room, off camera, while search team members enter the room with her as others watched from the doorway,” Murray wrote then, calling the search excessive and abusive. “It should be noted, no other patient at Benton was singled out and treated in this manner.”
The class action lawsuit filed by Liberty and several others is still winding its way through U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. Liberty is survived by several family members, including her daughter and parents, who described her as someone who made “everyone who knew her laugh, cry and clap at all the stories she shared,” according to her obituary.
“Our family is grateful to know that Charlene is finally at peace,” they wrote. “Charlene will be dearly missed and always remembered.”
DRRI, meanwhile, has called on BHDDH director Richard Charest to provide the advocacy group with Liberty’s complete medical record, a video from the two days leading up to her discharge, her discharge plan and any policies relating to the discharge process for patients integrating back into the community.
The group set a deadline of April 18. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the state had complied or asked for an extension.
“Disability Rights Rhode Island shares a portion of the grief as we mourn the loss of a victim of the system,” Murray wrote. “May Charlene Liberty’s legacy be that our mental health system treats people like her with compassion, effective services and the community-based supports they need to recover and live in peace.”