ACLU of Colorado Challenges Abuse of Prisoners in Garfield County Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
July 19, 2006 12:00 am

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DENVER, CO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a sweeping class action lawsuit today in federal court on behalf of prisoners in the Garfield County Jail who have been subjected to widespread excessive force by deputies’ misuse and abuse of pepperball guns, restraint chairs, Tasers, pepper spray, and electroshock belts.

“The deputies are enthralled by these nifty devices,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. “Some of them may have a legitimate use in a detention facility, but only in strictly limited circumstances and under carefully crafted guidelines designed to control the potential for abuse and the serious risk they pose to prisoners’ health and safety. At the Garfield County Jail, however, there are no written policies that regulate deputies’ use of restraint chairs, electroshock weapons, or pepperball guns, and the one-page policy on pepper spray is insufficient as written and regularly violated in practice.”

The ACLU said in legal papers that the jail’s use of the devices violates widely accepted standards of law enforcement and corrections professionals, as well as the manufacturers’ and vendors’ training and recommendations for safe and appropriate use. The lawsuit says that prisoners shot with pepperballs or drenched with pepper spray are regularly strapped into the restraint chair—sometimes for hours—without being provided any opportunity to decontaminate.

“Deputies have threatened prisoners with Tasers after they are already fully-restrained and have intentionally strapped prisoners into the chair in extremely painful positions,” said ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass. “Deputies have used these devices as an abusive form of summary corporal punishment, causing intense pain and physical injuries.”

Prisoners going to court are often forced to wear a remote-controlled electroshock belt during transport to court and during hearings. With a push of a button, a deputy can deliver an incapacitating and painful eight-second-long electric shock of 50,000 volts. Amnesty International has condemned the use of such devices as torture, with prisoners never knowing when or whether a deputy will push the button. According to the ACLU lawsuit, deputies deliberately taunt prisoners to heighten their anxiety while they are wearing the electroshock belt by playing “mind games” and suggesting that the prisoners are about to be shocked.

Silverstein said he hoped the ACLU’s lawsuit would serve as a wake-up call to jail authorities. “Without strict regulation of restraint chairs, pepperball guns, electroshock devices and pepper spray, deputies are likely to wind up with a dead prisoner on their hands,” he said.

The lawsuit notes that electroshock weapons, pepper spray, and restraint chairs have all been associated with a number of in-custody deaths, and that the jail’s unregulated use of these devices in combination poses especially serious risks to prisoners’ safety. According to the lawsuit, the jail’s use-of-force practices pose “serious and unjustifiable risks to prisoners’ health, safety, physical integrity, and even their lives.”

Two of the four named plaintiffs have serious mental health problems, but the jail has denied their repeated requests for mental health care. They have been strapped into the restraint chair a total of 12 times between them, sometimes for over six hours. The lawsuit outlines how deputies have responded to symptoms of prisoners’ untreated mental health problems as disciplinary issues instead of medical or psychiatric issues.

Today’s lawsuit comes after a several-months-long ACLU of Colorado investigation, which has included correspondence with current and former prisoners, review of documents obtained under the Colorado open records laws, and face-to-face interviews with current prisoners. During an ACLU of Colorado visit to the jail in June, Sheriff Lou Vallario prohibited ACLU attorneys from speaking with several prisoners who had asked for ACLU legal assistance, prompting the ACLU of Colorado to sue the sheriff last month over the denial of attorney interviews. The lawsuit filed today includes a claim on behalf of one of the prisoners who was not allowed to speak with ACLU of Colorado attorneys in June.

The lawsuit, Vandehey v. Vallario, was filed in federal district court in Denver and names Vallario and Jail Commander Scott Dawson as defendants. The named plaintiffs representing the class of current and future prisoners are Clarence Vandehey, William Langley, Samuel Lincoln, and Jared Hogue.

The ACLU lawsuit is online at:

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