July 5, 2010

Behind the Bars | Secretary Carla Meade's suicide raised questions

By R. G. Dunlop rdunlop@courier-journal.com

WHEELWRIGHT, Ky. -- In early 2008 Carla Meade, a secretary at the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Floyd County, learned while in the hospital for possible heart problems and diabetes-related complications that she was being demoted.

Six days later, on the morning of Jan. 22, 2008, she arrived at work for a meeting with warden Joyce Arnold to discuss the matter.

She went to Arnold's office around 9 a.m., and the two women spoke about why Meade was being moved out of her secretarial job and into Otter Creek's security department.

Meade, 43, announced she was quitting. She tossed her company identification card and keys onto Arnold's desk, got out of her chair, turned toward the door and shot herself in the chest with the .22-caliber pistol she had smuggled past prison security. She died almost instantly.

Later, it was discovered that about 4 a.m. that day, Meade had sent herself an e-mail reminder for Jan. 22, which said: "Carla is dead. Carla is dead."

Investigators were unable to conclusively determine how Meade -- in what the state termed a "critical breach of security" -- managed to get a gun past guards and into the warden's office.

But her suicide and the events leading up to it were described in the records of a lawsuit filed by her estate in U.S. District Court in Pikeville.

It alleged that Arnold and Corrections Corp. of America, which owns and operates Otter Creek, had demoted Meade because of her medical problems and caused her suicide through their "outrageous" actions. It sought unspecified compensation and damages.

The suit was dismissed last July on grounds that there was no evidence Arnold or CCA intended to harm Meade by transferring her to a new job.

But testimony in the suit -- which named Arnold and the Nashville-based CCA as defendants -- offers a glimpse into working conditions at the prison and Arnold's management style, characterized as abrasive by some employees.

Arnold, now the warden at CCA's Gadsden Correctional Facility in Florida, declined to be interviewed by The Courier-Journal. But but in an affidavit filed in connection with the lawsuit, she asserted that she "had a supportive and encouraging relationship with Carla Meade."

She said she had tried to assist Meade by providing financial support; by securing a "substantial raise" for her; and by encouraging her to take advantage of medical programs and benefits available through CCA.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen also declined to discuss Meade's case, which he described as a "tragedy."

While she was hospitalized, Meade had been given a two-paragraph letter informing her that she was being disciplined -- transferred from her job as administrative department secretary at the prison.

Former Otter Creek assistant warden Jeff Little, who was assigned to give Meade the letter, declined to be interviewed. But in a deposition, he said he had protested when Arnold instructed him to deliver the letter, arguing that it should "wait until she got out of the hospital."

Arnold, however, "was adamant that it had to be done that day," he said, in part so Meade would not learn of the job change "from the rumor mill."

Little, who is now at CCA's Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, said Meade wept when he delivered the letter and asked why she was being "demoted."

He said he told her that the job action represented a transfer, not a demotion. But he also acknowledged under questioning by Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, representing Meade's estate, that the letter's reference to a "PSN," or problem-solving notice, indicated she was being disciplined.

Hospital records included in the court file show that Meade was admitted on Jan. 15 and seemed to be in "some distress." The records indicate she had not been taking her medications because she could not afford them.

Meade was "not feeling much better" at the time of her discharge three days later, according to the records, which also indicate that she was "found to have a very bad anxiety problem during her hospital stay. Also, she got a letter from her job that she had a demotion because of continuous illness over the last few months, so the patient seems to be very emotionally upset and anxious."

She received anti-anxiety medication while in the hospital and was given more to take after her discharge.

In his opinion last July dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar said that informing Meade of her job change while hospitalized "was inconsiderate at best," and that doing so "perhaps shows a lack of concern by Arnold for Ms. Meade's emotions" and "was perhaps reckless, wanton or negligent."

But, he concluded, that did not equate to a "deliberate intention" by CCA or Arnold to harm Meade.

For that reason and because Meade's death was work-related, the judge concluded, the state's Workers' Compensation Act barred the lawsuit. Meade's estate did not appeal.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at (502) 582-4227.