ACLU files abuse lawsuit against Garfield County Jail
July 19, 2006
The Garfield County Jail’s use of restraint chairs, pepperball guns and electric shock belts to control unruly inmates will force Sheriff Lou Vallario and Jail Commander Scott Dawson back into federal court in Denver. The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday filed a 73-page class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver against Vallario and Dawson on behalf of four inmates who claim jail staff have repeatedly abused them. Inmates Clarence Vandehey, William Langley, Samuel Lincoln and Jared Hogue claim in the suit that they were subjected to a “pervasive pattern of disproportionate and excessive force carried out by deputies’ misuse and abuse of pepperball guns, restraint chairs, Tasers, pepper spray and electroshock belts.”ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein said sheriff’s deputies “are enthralled by these nifty devices,” which he claimed are not regulated by any written policies at the jail. The jail does, however, have policies governing pepper spray and the use of force against inmates. It adopted the policies more than two years ago. The lawsuit claims the jail’s alleged practice of strapping inmates in restraint chairs sometimes for hours at a time violates common law enforcement standards and the manufacturer’s recommendations for the chairs’ safe use. ACLU staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass called the jail’s use of the restraint chairs “an abusive form of summary corporal punishment causing intense pain and physical injuries.”The ACLU claims sheriff’s deputies taunt inmates with “mind games” to heighten their anxiety while they are wearing an electric shock belt, which delivers an eight-second 50,000-volt shock with the push of a button. The lawsuit alleges Vallario fails to ensure adequate training for his deputies, fails to adequately supervise deputies to control alleged inmate abuses and interferes with inmates’ right to talk confidentially with attorneys. Silverstein said he hopes the lawsuit will be a “wake-up call” for Vallario, encouraging him to strictly regulate the use of the restraint chair, belt, pepperball guns and pepper spray.Vallario on Wednesday said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit until the county’s attorneys have a chance to review it, but he has denied similar allegations and said early this month that jailers do not punish inmates.”We’re going to use the minimum amount of force to get you to comply,” he said. He has The lawsuit follows the ACLU’s failed request in June for U.S. District Judge Walker Miller to force Vallario to allow the ACLU to meet with any inmate it chooses in a confidential setting regardless of the hardship such meetings place on jail staff. Miller ruled June 28 that the ACLU had not proven that the jail’s visitation policy is inappropriate. The policy requires jailers to ask inmates who their attorney is or if they are seeking representation from the attorney or legal organization who wants to meet with them.In Wednesday’s suit, the ACLU again claims that at least one inmate has been denied access to ACLU lawyers. Vallario has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit; a court date has not been set. The plaintiffs in the suit have each spent time in the Garfield County Jail, in some cases on multiple occasions. Vandehey and Langley are both charged with participating in a jail riot in November during which they allegedly plugged the drains of their toilets and sinks, causing water to back up and leak into Vallario’s office. Langley on July 6 pleaded not guilty to rioting. In the same court hearing, Judge Tom Ossola sentenced him to two years’ probation for burglarizing the Glenwood Springs Coca-Cola distribution facility in 2004 and a man’s West Glenwood apartment in 2005. Vandehey will stand trial for his rioting-related charges on July 31. Since being jailed for spitting on a police officer in September, he was charged with criminal mischief in January for kicking and damaging the door to his cell in the Garfield County Jail. Lincoln is set to enter a plea today in 9th Judicial District Court for allegedly stabbing and attempting to kill Federico Garcia-Hernandez in November 2004 in a West Glenwood trailer. He was the subject of a Mesa County manhunt last year and was arrested in West Glenwood in December. Hogue, of Rifle, is in custody on charges of first-degree assault on a peace officer and a slate of other charges. A preliminary hearing for Hogue is scheduled for Aug. 7.