ACLU adds claims to suit
August 29, 2006
The American Civil Liberties Union has added two claims to a class action lawsuit against Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, accusing him of denying mental health care to indigent county jail prisoners and imposing harsh discipline without due process.
Sometimes that discipline is being imposed on people for actions resulting from their mental problems, the ACLU contends.
The organization amended its suit Aug. 1. Jail commander Scott Dawson also is named as a defendant.
In an interview Monday, Vallario denied the ACLU’s newest claims, as he previously had taken issue with those made in its original suit, filed in federal court July 19.
Many of the allegations contained in the latest claims had been referred to in the original suit, but now the ACLU is formally challenging the sheriff’s office over them, said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.
The ACLU contends prisoners are asking for psychiatric help but being denied it when they don’t have the necessary $100 in their inmate accounts. The only exceptions are cases in which they are hallucinating or suicidal.
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The U.S. and Colorado constitutions and Colorado law require the serious mental health needs of prisoners to be treated even when they don’t have money, the ACLU says in its suit. It states that some prisoners “have suffered from unnecessary mental anguish and physical pain” as a result of deliberate indifference by Vallario and Dawson.
It specifically cited the cases of Clarence Vandehey and William Langley, both of whom have had serious mental health problems since they were children, the lawsuit states. Both prisoners ended up being strapped into restraint chairs multiple times while in jail, the ACLU states.
In both its original and amended suits, the ACLU has accused jailers of abusing prisoners in their use of restraint chairs, pepper spray, pepper ball guns and electric shock belts.
The ACLU also says the jail is in effect sentencing prisoners to significant punishments for alleged disciplinary infractions in jail, without a proper hearing process.
“In many cases the punishment is imposed on prisoners for alleged actions that are most appropriately understood as symptoms of the prisoners’ serious mental health problems, which … the jail has failed to treat or has treated inadequately,” the suit states.
One punishment is confining a prisoner to the supermax portion of the jail, a high-security area in which prisoners get only an hour of outdoor recreation a day, often during non-daylight hours in winter and without coats or jackets, the suit states.
Another is having regular meals replaced with “nutraloaf,” a substitute food the ACLU says causes constipation.
“I would absolutely deny that anybody is being subjected to any harsh punishment,” Vallario said Monday.
He said prisoners are given adequate clothing to go outside in the winter. Some prisoners may only be able to go out in the dark because supermax prisoners are allowed out only one at a time, meaning it’s not always possible for all of them to exercise outside during the day.
Vallario said he hasn’t heard of any constipation side effects from nutraloaf. While that may be possible in isolated cases, the food meets all of a prisoner’s calorie and nutrient needs, he said.
Things such as nutraloaf are used to achieve behavioral compliance in a jail, and not to punish prisoners, Vallario said.
“You have to comply with the rules just like everybody does. We can’t allow chaos and anarchy,” he said.
He questioned the degree to which due process is required in internal disciplinary matters in a jail, versus in a criminal case. But he says a grievance process exists for prisoners.
The ACLU maintains that process has not been properly followed.
Vallario confirmed the limited nature of mental health services offered for free at the jail, saying it’s restricted to crisis intervention and screening.
The jail contracts with medical providers who make a determination on whether to refer a prisoner to Colorado West Regional Mental Health for further care. However, the ACLU argues that the medical providers aren’t qualified to do that screening.
” I guess the judge will have to answer that. We’re very confident in our medical staff,” Vallario said.
He said the issue of how responsible county sheriffs should be for dealing with the mental health issues of inmates is being debated at a national level.
“It comes back down to how much of that should we be addressing, how much are we addressing,” he said.
But he said the jail isn’t disregarding inmates’ mental health needs.
“As far as being totally insensitive and not caring, I would have to say that’s not true,” he said.
The lawsuit specifically names Vandehey, Langley, Jared Hogue and Samuel Lincoln as plaintiffs, but states that it was filed on behalf of current and future prisoners at the jail.
Vallario and Dawson have until late September to file a response to the suit.