A Middlebury woman whose son died in prison is suing the Indiana Department of Corrections, prison officials and guards.
Alice Blessing's lawsuit, filed this week in the U.S. District Court for Northern Indiana, alleges prison officials knew her son, Steven Blessing, 24, was mentally ill and was in danger from other inmates but they refused to provide him treatment, stop him from committing suicide or separate him from inmates who wanted to harm him.
Steven Blessing died Feb. 26, 2012, from an apparent hanging in his cell at Westville Correctional Facility. He was serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to Class B Felony aggravated battery, in which he admitted, at age 19, to striking a man in the head with a 2-by-4 in 2007. In addition to the DOC, the suit names Mark Levenhagen, Westville superintendent; 13 named prison guards; and several unidentified medical personnel as defendants.
The suit alleges Blessing had been transferred from the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City because he was "in harm's way" after providing information to law enforcement officers about inmate Shawn Pettis and other Michigan City inmates. But after the transfer to Westville, Westville officials told Blessing they were going to place him with inmates who were known associates of Pettis.
To avoid this, Blessing assaulted prison guards, hoping his misconduct would land him in segregation, keeping him safe, the suit alleges. He was placed in segregation Jan. 9, 2012.
Although Levenhagen and other staff decided to transfer Blessing to a higher security location, guards never told him this, the suit alleges. Rather, they told Blessing he would be sent to the dorm area where Pettis' associates were so Blessing could be "made an example of" and his "attempt to manipulate his housing situation would backfire on him."
Between Jan. 8 and Feb. 26,Blessing, fearing his impending move to the dorm where Pettis' associates were, attempted suicide, but his attempt went unreported in his prison records, the suit alleges.
Alice Blessing states in the lawsuit that she gained this information from Steven Blessing's prison file, which she obtained after his death, but his records for Feb. 8-26 were withheld or destroyed.
Brian Corbin, spokesman for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, said the office was aware of the lawsuit but had yet to file a response. Following its policy, the office won't comment publicly about lawsuits, Corbin said.
"As the lawyer for state government, the Indiana Attorney General's Office will respond to the plaintiff's allegations in court at the appropriate time," Corbin said.
Alice Blessing is being represented by South Bend attorney Stanley Wruble. When contacted by The Elkhart Truth, Wruble said Blessing did not want to comment on the case.