Goshen News, Goshen, IN

March 1, 2014

Mother sues state for son's death

By SCOTT WEISSER scott.weisser@goshennews.com
Goshen News

---- — A Middlebury woman is suing state officials, the Department of Correction and staff at Westville Correctional Facility in the wake of her son’s death two years ago at Westville.

Alice Blessing filed her lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in South Bend. Court documents indicate that her son, Steven Blessing, was found hanging in his holding cell Feb. 26, 2012. Among the multiple defendants listed in the lawsuit is Westville Superintendent Mark Levenhagen.

Via the lawsuit, Alice Blessing alleges her son was a known risk for committing suicide, and also that his “history of psychological disorders was ignored by all relevant personnel.” According to court documents, Steven Blessing was also in fear of other inmates at Westville.

Blessing was serving time in the DOC after being sentenced in Elkhart County on a battery charge. Prior to his arrival at Westville, he had been housed at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Blessing had previously given information to law enforcement officials about certain inmates housed at the prison. Those inmates threatened to harm Blessing, who requested protective custody.

In lieu of that custody, the lawsuit reads, Blessing was transferred to Westville Jan. 4, 2012. He was initially placed in segregation. A few days later, Blessing was told he was being moved to another dorm — one occupied by associates of the people Blessing had informed on to police, according to the lawsuit.

“In desperation, Steven assaulted two prison guards in order to be placed in segregation and avoid those who intended to brutally murder him,” court documents read. Blessing was placed in segregation Jan. 9, 2012.

Around this time, according to the lawsuit, Westville officials and staff decided to transfer Blessing to a higher-security location. Alice Blessing alleges that this information was kept from her son, who was never made aware of the fact that he would be placed anywhere other than the dorm he’d fought to avoid. Blessing’s lawsuit reads that this was done to make an example of Steven and to show that “his attempt to manipulate his housing situation would backfire on him.”

Alice Blessing alleges that after Jan. 8, 2012, and before Feb. 26, 2012, her son attempted suicide, though this went unreported in his records. She indicated the individual defendants named in the lawsuit knew of the attempt.

Blessing alleges that around Feb. 26, 2012, someone on staff at Westville led her son to believe he was being transferred back to the dorm. She claims this was done knowing Steven had already tried to kill himself.

Blessing is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and reimbursement for costs, expenses and attorney fees. She is also seeking an order that the defendants acted in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Westview prison staff on Friday referred questions to the Indiana Attorney General’s office. Bryan Corbin, a public information officer for the Attorney General, stated in an email, “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.”