After Eight Deaths in Colorado Jail, ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
April 2, 2002 12:00 am

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DENVER–Saying that the El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs has failed to protect and provide adequate resources for prisoners with serious mental health needs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today filed a federal class action lawsuit against prison officials.

“”All over the country, more and more prisoners are arriving at overcrowded and understaffed county jails with serious mental illness or symptoms of psychosis that are the result of withdrawal or overdose from substance abuse,”” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado.

“”The El Paso County Jail has been unable to fulfill its constitutional duty to protect prisoners from the risk of self-harm or suicide and to provide for their serious mental health needs,” he added. “At best, our clients endure unconscionable neglect. At worst, they endure conditions that are inhumane, degrading, humiliating, dangerous, and sometimes fatal.””

The jail has faced scrutiny from the ACLU since May 1998, when pre-trial detainee Michael Lewis died while strapped face-down to a restraint board. For days prior to his death, he had been hallucinating and suffering from psychosis probably caused by a change in his usual medications. He had been on a waiting list to see the facility’s psychiatrist, who visited only every other week.

Eight additional prisoners have died in the jail since then, four of them in 2001. In almost every case, the lawsuit alleges, the deceased prisoner was suicidal, seriously mentally ill, or displaying symptoms of psychosis from overdose or withdrawal.

The jail provides medical, psychiatric, and mental health services by contracting with a private company. But according to David C. Fathi, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project and co-counsel in the case, the staffing plan “”provides only two hours per week of psychiatric services, which translates to 36 seconds per mentally ill prisoner per week.””

“”Furthermore,”” Fathi said, “”providing only two full-time mental health employees who are unlicensed and lack sufficient background and training is grossly inadequate and negligent.””

According to the ACLU lawsuit, many individuals with mental illness enter the jail already taking medications prescribed by outside mental health care providers. Upon entry to the jail, prisoners have faced long delays before their medication is resumed, if it is resumed at all. Because the medical contractor has a restricted list of medications that it will provide, prisoners who had adjusted well to their previous prescription suddenly find their medications switched.

Moreover, the lawsuit says, there is insufficient medical and mental health staff to monitor the effects of the changed medications, a combination the ACLU says threatens the health and safety of prisoners.

The lawsuit alleges that mentally ill prisoners also suffer because the corrections staff is stretched too thin and not adequately trained to recognize when prisoners’ behavior may be the result of mental illness or psychosis rather than willful defiance of jail rules or deputies’ orders. The result, the ACLU says, is excessive force and unnecessary use of dangerous restraint devices. The lack of sufficient mental health staff also results in deputies making decisions that should only be made by qualified mental health professionals.

The lawsuit recounts the 1999 case of a young woman who arrived at the jail on an alcohol violation, already visibly upset. She told guards that she had recently been raped twice. Corrections staff put her in an isolation cell for making suicidal statements. When she attempted to harm herself, deputies stripped her naked, laid her face-down on the concrete floor, handcuffed her behind her back and shackled her legs. Fifteen minutes later, corrections officers returned to strap her into a restraint chair, still naked. For the next five hours she remained strapped in the chair, naked, screaming in terror, and in full view of the male officers. The on-call mental health worker was paged four separate times but did not arrive until three hours after the young women had been strapped down.

The El Paso County Jail consists of two facilities holding recent arrestees, persons awaiting trial and persons convicted and sentenced to terms of two years or less. Prisoners, including the mentally ill, are forced to sleep in open “”day-rooms”” and in “”sled beds,”” coffin-like plastic forms placed directly on the floor. Because of overcrowding, some seriously mentally ill prisoners are left in general population with no special protection or services. No mentally ill women have access to separate specialized units.

The lawsuit states that prisoners who are suicidal or mentally ill often wind up in the jail’s “”special detention cells,”” which have no windows, no bed, and no toilet or sink. Four years ago, the American Correctional Association strong urged the El Paso County Jail to stop using these tiny cells, but their use continues. Further, despite nationally recognized correctional standards that require checkups every 15 minutes, prisoners are often left alone in these cells without observation for extended periods of time.

At the end of 2001, according the ACLU lawsuit, deputies housed a suicidal prisoner in a special detention cell while they awaited instructions from the jail’s mental health staff. After neglecting the fifteen-minute checks for an hour, a deputy reported that the prisoner had smeared feces on the cell door and had written “”I need the toilet”” in feces. Deputies left the prisoner in the tiny stench-ridden cell for another hour, intervening only when they discovered that he was cutting his arm with a sharpened metal cover from an electrical outlet. The prisoner was taken to the hospital. The jail’s mental health staff never arrived, according to the lawsuit.

“”The El Paso County Jail continues to deny the prompt and proper provision of mental health treatment, protection from inhumane and punitive actions and appropriate housing for its mentally ill prisoners,”” said Fathi. “”This oppressive environment causes further harm to the county’s most vulnerable population.””

Today’s federal court lawsuit, Shook v. Board of County Commissioners, is the fifth in recent years to target conditions in the jail. An earlier ACLU class action resulted in a settlement that ended the use of the controversial restraint board. A separate wrongful death suit filed by Lewis’s family was settled in 2001. Another ACLU suit filed last year seeks compensation for the family of Andrew Spillane, who died in the jail in 2000. Last week, the family of Steven Phelps, who died by suicide in the jail in 2001, filed a suit seeking compensation.

The legal complaint in the case is online at:

For more information on the ACLU’s work on prisoners’ rights, go to /Prisons/PrisonsMain.cfm.

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