Garfield County settles ACLU lawsuit over jail mistreatment
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A 2006 civil rights lawsuit against Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario and others, over allegations that county jail staff mistreated prisoners and denied them basic services, was settled in late April, the sheriff’s office announced on Monday.
According to the announcement, the lawsuit was “voluntarily dismissed with prejudice,” meaning the four plaintiffs cannot refile the same suit over the same allegations.
“I feel good,” said Vallario on Monday.
He said the case was a dispute between two points of view. One was the inmates’ expectations about how they should be treated, and the other is the laws that govern jail operations.
Although in this case the two viewpoints clashed, Vallario assured the county’s taxpayers, “We are not violating anybody’s constitutional rights. We don’t waterboard people.
“I tell my jail staff we are not here to punish. We are here to make sure whatever sentence the judge gave them is carried out,” he said.
Vallario believes the settlement and dismissal of the case was in part due to a tour of the jail facilities last August by a federal magistrate and the attorneys arguing the case for the plaintiffs.
He said the jail’s operating rules have been changed to provide inmates with greater due process in addressing complaints; a new mental-health provider was hired a couple of years ago; and a jail renovation permitted the addition of two padded cells to replace a “restraint chair” that once was used to deal with violent inmates, among other changes.
“I think that was a good portion of it,” he said of the tour’s influence on the case’s outcome, although he denied that the changes necessarily were made in response to the lawsuit.
“Every year we’re trying to be better than the past year,” he said. The changes are the result of his commitment to making steady, annual improvements to the jail’s operations, he said.
As part of the settlement, entered on April 25 in Denver’s U.S. District Court, the county was ordered to pay the ACLU’s court costs, which amounted to $69,200 in “real costs,” as Vallario described it.
Under the judge’s dismissal ruling, Vallario continued, the parties to the case were directed to bear their own separate attorney’s fees, costs and other expenses.
The case cost an estimated $600,000 to $650,000 in county funds, Vallario said, although he did not have exact figures. He noted that while the cost of defending the case was published as more than $569,000 in 2008, “It tapered off after that.”
He said settlement talks began, and actual courtroom appearances dwindled.
The suit was filed in July 2006 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of inmates Clarence Vandehey, William Langley, Samuel Lincoln and Jared Hogue. None remain as inmates in the Garfield County Jail.
The lawsuit originally named Vallario and former jail commander Scott Dawson as defendants, although when current jail commander Stephen Hopple assumed the job, he also assumed the role of defendant in the case.
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