A lengthy article published last week in the St. Helens Chronicle details a disturbing case of alleged prison abuse. According to the newspaper “a former inmate has requested a jury trial, seeking $500,000 for damages after an encounter with a K-9 while imprisoned in Columbia County jail this year.”
The case was filed in federal court earlier this month. Like other cases of prison abuse that I have written about in recent months it is a civil action built around 42 United States Code 1983. This statute requires state and local governments to enforce the rights that inmates and others are guaranteed under the eighth amendment to the US Constitution. 42 USC 1983 says that all people are entitled to “any rights privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” and that state and local governments must acknowledge and enforce these rights. As The Chronicle notes, this interpretation of the statute was upheld in a 1978 US Supreme Court Ruling (Monell v New York City Department of Social Services 436 US 658).
The St Helens case alleges that deputies at the county jail ordered a police dog to attack a prisoner in his cell, claiming falsely that the inmate was violent and uncooperative when, in fact, he had merely insulted a guard. According to the suit “the county and its officials… failed to provide adequate training to sheriff’s deputies with respect to constitutional limits on the use of force, detention, mental health, and inmate cell extractions and failed to adequately discipline or retrain officers involved in misconduct,” the newspaper reports. It also alleges that the deputies conspired to cover up their actions by filing false reports.
“The lawsuit claims the defendants used K-9 force ‘solely in retaliation for (the inmate) referring’ to one of the deputies ‘by an unkind nickname she was called in high school,’” the paper reports. The suit also charges that more senior officials in the jail failed in their duty to monitor the deputies’ conduct and training and to make them aware of their legal responsibilities. It also seeks damages from both the deputies and the supervisors for “extreme and outrageous acts with the intent to inflict severe emotional distress.”
As a Portland attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington I believe this case deserves everyone’s attention. At the most basic level it is about civil rights: the right of every person to be treated with dignity and respect, even when they are in custody. It is also a clear reminder that all levels of government must honor those rights. If sheriff’s deputies can act with impunity simply because they have been insulted or someone’s feelings have been hurt then everyone’s civil rights are in danger.
The Chronicle (St. Helens OR): Federal lawsuit seeks $500K for jail K-9 bite