The ACLU of Utah filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging constitutional rights of inmates housed in the mental-health unit at the Utah State Prison were violated when tear gas used to subdue one inmate spread into other enclosed cells.
Correctional officers fired tear gas on Aug. 3, 2011, after one inmate refused to return to his cell from a courtyard, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Utah. The gas was pumped through air vents into the fully enclosed cells of other inmates, causing burning eyes, lungs and skin. Many inmates thought the wing was on fire.
"We commonly heard that people thought they were going to die," said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah Foundation. "We think the circumstances of the case amount to the use of cruel and unusual punishment."
The complaint says that as tear gas infiltrated cells, inmates began "desperately trying to get the attention of prison officials by, among other things, kicking, screaming, and repeatedly pressing their emergency response buttons" but officers ignored the calls for assistance.
"Consequently, inmates had no idea what was happening to them," the complaint states. "Adding to the prisoners' distress, prison officials came into the Olympus wing wearing gas masks and at least one official laughed at the prisoners' inability to breathe."
The inmates were kept in their cells for 20 minutes to 30 minutes before prisoners in two blocks were let out and taken to an outside courtyard; inmates in two other blocks were not released from their cells.
Five inmates who were housed in the Olympus mental health unit are named as plaintiffs in lawsuit. One of the inmates is no longer incarcerated.
The five plaintiffs are representing all current prisoners housed at Olympus and approximately 150 male prisoners who were housed there and exposed to the tear gas.
Mike Haddon, a deputy director for the Utah Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on the allegations because of the ongoing litigation.
However, speaking generally, Haddon said that spray is used infrequently at Olympus and is typically deployed to avoid having to go "hands on" and to decrease injury to inmates and staff.
"Our goal is to keep everybody safe," he said.
The Olympus unit houses up to 230 inmates with "more severe" mental illnesses that require psychotropic medication and close supervision and inmates with age-related health infirmities. In addition to the ACLU of Utah, private attorney Karra Porter is representing the inmates. The Disability Law Center of Utah also is lending its support to the lawsuit, Mejia said.
The prison warden, a captain who was on duty and supervised the response and an officer who responded are named as defendants.
Mejia said use of tear gas to control a single misbehaving inmate was inappropriate, "especially when it could get into the air vents, which is what happened," he said.
The use of tear gas "was not a good faith effort to restore discipline and order but was used sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm," the complaint alleges.
The complaint says some inmates who were brought outside were called "sissies" and were told they should only seek medical attention if it was an emergency and that they would have to pay for any care. Tear gas continues to irritate skin and lungs unless washed off, the complaint says. Officers told the inmates that counselors would be available to meet with them, but none was actually provided.
At the time, prisoners in the Olympus unit who were capable of working earned 40 cents per hour; the prison charged $1 to fill out a request to see a doctor and $4 to actually see a doctor. A nurse who met with inmates said the gas effects would go away in time; only a few inmates sought care at the prison infirmary, according to the court document.
"We don't think [the inmates] were provided with adequate care for their physical or mental well-being," Mejia said.
Officers also "threatened inmates with future 'gassings' and told them that 'this is what you get for misbehaving,'" the complaint says.
Telephones in the wing were shut down for approximately two days after the gassing episode, which the complaint alleges was done to "conceal the gassing incident from the public, or as an implicit threat against prisoners if they discussed the incident with others." The complaint also alleges that the captain in charge that day misrepresented the medical care inmates received and the scope of the incident in reports to prison administrators.
The complaint says that current prison policy does not appear to prohibit use of chemical agents in response to misconduct by a single prisoner.
"The reason we are bringing the complaint is that it is not clear to us whether this could repeat itself due to [the prison's] policies and practices," Mejia said. "If there is no clear policy for the use of tear gas one needs to be established, particularly in the Olympus wing, which has especially vulnerable inmates living there."
The complaint also questions whether use of chemical agents in the wing is appropriate and constitutional given the mental and physical health conditions of inmates housed there.