Articles Posted in Police Brutality/Civil Rights Violations

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The series begins with several examples of prison and jail deaths, followed by a stark statistic: “Since 2008, at least 306 people across the Northwest have died after being taken to a county jail.” Over the course of a three-part investigation published last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, working in cooperation with other public media outlets in Oregon and Washington, offered a detailed, and disturbing, look at the state of health care available to people jailed here in the Pacific Northwest.

Notably, the death statistic does not come from an official source. As OPB reports, “until now, that number was unknown, in part because Oregon and Washington have not comprehensively tracked those deaths in county jails.” In other words: it took a media investigation to determine the extent of the problem, one that OPB calls “a crisis of rising death rates in overburdened jails that have been set up to fail the inmates they are tasked with keeping safe.”

OPB reports that suicide is “by far the leading cause of jail deaths in the Pacific Northwest, (accounting) for nearly half of all cases with a known cause of death.” Yet the issues the series raises concerning negligence and indifference on the part of jail staff are also significant. The series offers a number of examples of inmates who died after being served food to which they were allergic, or whose complaints about serious medical issues were ignored.

A recent story published by Courthouse News Service details a legal case in Arizona that deserves to be making headlines nationwide. There has been a lot of media coverage over the last few years of the abuses of the private, for-profit prison industry. The Arizona case, however, highlights what can go wrong even when the state is still in charge. It also reminds us of the critical role our courts play in overseeing those with power and ensuring they do their jobs properly and humanely.

In Arizona, according to the news service, the state retained control of the prisons that are the focus of the lawsuit, but contracted out medical services to “Corizon, one of the nation’s largest prison health care providers.” Citing reporting by local NPR affiliate KJZZ, the news service writes that a Corizon staff member told a doctor working with the company part-time “to cancel a pending infectious disease consultation for a prisoner” because the consultation was past due and the company risked being fined for its slow response. The whistleblower also reported instances of critical medication, such as insulin, being withheld from prisoners and of her superior ordering her not to treat an inmate who had suffered a heart attack. She alleges she was told to spend less time with patients and focus on paperwork instead.

This case raises serious political issues, reminding us that the ‘savings’ offered by privatizing public services can sometimes be illusory. It also raises an equally serious civil rights issue. As I have noted in the past, federal, and many state, laws require that inmates receive a level of health care comparable to what they could expect to receive were they free. Failure to provide that level of care is a civil rights issue as defined in 42 US Code 1983. This statute protects anyone who has been deprived of “any rights privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” by the government at any level. Crucially, that responsibility extends to the government’s agents – in this case, private contractors. Corizon is a private company, but because it is working for the government, the government’s obligation to provide proper medical care extends to the company itself. Corizon, in legal terms, becomes a “state actor” because they are under contract to, in this case, Arizona to treat people who are, ultimately, in the state’s care.

A recent article in The Oregonian documented efforts by Disability Rights Oregon to convince “the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to transfer jail inmates undergoing mental health crises to the city’s new emergency psychiatric care center if needed.” As the article outlines, the Northeast Portland facility recently opened, offering “a long-awaited alternative to having police take people in crisis to regular hospital ERs.”

As the newspaper reports “a no-guns policy and other logistics make the request a tough sell.” What it does not lay out, however, is an especially strong legal argument for using the Unity Center for Behavioral Health: prisoners’ rights.

As I have written in other contexts, one of the most important legal tools for ensuring that people held in custody are treated in a humane way that respects their rights is 42 USC 1983. This allows individuals to sue when the government deprives them of any of the “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” In plain English: it offers a mechanism for people who have been mistreated by government at any level (local, state, federal) to have their day in court and obtain justice.

According to the Oregon Department of Prisons website our state first experimented with private prisons in the late 1800s. The state penitentiary “was leased to a private company… Since this concept was becoming very popular nationwide, Oregon’s legislature approved the experiment.” It did not last long. “In one day every inmate at the penitentiary escaped. Most walked out the front gate.”

This amusing historical nugget is a reminder that some ideas never quite go away – in this case the idea that private companies are always more efficient and that their need to make a profit will not result in either sloppy work or abuses (the 19th century version of private prisons made their money mainly by hiring the prisoners out as labor). Today, private prisons are illegal in Oregon, and our state is one of 11 that do not use the private system at all, according to a 2012 report by The Sentencing Project. An announcement by the Obama administration last month that the Federal government will phase out its use of private prisons is also likely to put a dent in the industry.

As a recent article in The New Yorker outlines, however, beyond the full-scale privatization of prisons the growth of all prisons over the last generation along with America’s collective assumption that private services are always superior to public services has led to some shocking arrangements in both government and private-run prisons. These often deny basic civil rights to prisoners with the goal of making money for the government. For example, the magazine notes, “short phone calls from prison can cost up to fifteen dollars, largely because the companies operate as monopolies within prison walls. The private companies also offer state and local authorities a percentage of their revenue, which contributes to the cost of the calls and creates other perverse incentives. Some jails, for instance, have removed in-person family-visitation rooms to make way for ‘video visitation’ terminals, provided by private firms, which can charge as much as thirty dollars for forty minutes of screen time.”

In six months, one of the trials in the Oregon police brutality lawsuit accusing Portland police officers of contributing to James P. Chasse Jr.’s wrongful death, because they allegedly used excessive force when apprehending him and then denied him the proper medical care, is scheduled to begin. Already, Multnomah County commissioners have approved a $925,000 settlement that resolves the Portland, Oregon wrongful death claim made by Chasse’s family against the county and several defendants, including former Multnomah County Deputy Bret Burton and correction nurses Sokunthy Eath and Patricia Gayman.

Claims however, are still pending against the city of Portland, former Mayor Tom Potter, Portland Police Officer Christopher Humphreys, Chief Rosie Sizer, police Sgt. Kyle Nice, American Medical Response Northwest Inc., and paramedics Kevin Stucker and Tamara Hergert. Because a court order divided the case in two, there will be a second civil trial in late 2010.

Chasse, 42, was a schizophrenic. Burton, Nice, and Humphreys reportedly arrested him after one of the cops noticed that he appeared to be urinating in public. Police say they chased down the suspect, knocking him to the ground and handcuffing him while he struggled. They also stunned him with a Taser.

Following the incident, Chasse’s vital signs appeared normal. As a result, ambulance workers who arrived at the arrest scene did not take him to the hospital. The jail, however, would not book him because of his physical condition.

The 42-year-old suspect died in police custody as he was being transported to the hospital. According to the Multnomah County medical examiner, Chase sustained major internal injuries, and broke 16 ribs, his sternum, and a shoulder.

While the Use of Force Review Board determined that the way Chase was apprehended did not violate bureau policy, the board said that Chase should have been sent to the hospital right after he had been Tasered. As a result, Police Chief Rosie Sizer is recommending that Nice be suspended.

Portland chief recommends sergeant’s suspension in Chasse’s death, Oregon Live, September 23, 2009
County pays $925,000 to settle part of Chasse lawsuit, Portland Tribune, July 2, 2009

Related Web Resources:

Portland Police Bureau

Taser Deaths Blog

Taser guns ‘raised deaths in custody,’ New Scientist, February 2009

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Last December, our Portland, Oregon personal injury law firm blog post about a wrongful death case filed against the city of Sandy and a number of individuals over the police shooting death of a Gresham man. This week, an announcement was made that the family of 27-year-old Fouad Kaady has reached a $1 million settlement with the Oregon city and former police officer William J. Bergin.

Kaady was burned, naked, and bleeding when Officer Bergin and Clackamas County sheriff’s Deputy David E. Willard approached him on September 8, 2005. Kaady reportedly was behaving erratically and would not cooperate with police. He had also just rear-ended three motor vehicles and damaged the vehicle he was driving. According to witnesses, Kaady, who has a history of mental illness, was making wolf-like sounds.

To apprehend Kaady, police at first used a stun gun and shocked him several times. They then shot him seven times after he jumped on top of a police car.

A federal judge has decided that the Oregon wrongful death lawsuit against Clackamas County, the city of Sandy, and individual police officers over the death of Fouad Kaady can move forward. Kaady, a 27-year-old Portland resident, died after he was fatally shot by local police. He was unarmed at the time of the shooting incident.

Kaady’s family is seeking monetary damages for wrongful death, excessive force, and civil rights violations. The trial is expected to begin next April.

In 2005, Kaady was found bleeding, naked, and unarmed by police after he crashed his car on a rural Oregon road. Rather than calm him down, Deputy David Willard of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and William Bergin of the Sandy Police Department made him lay on the hot ground and Tasered him on his back.

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