A federal judge today reopened a hearing into whether California prison guards use excessive force and pepper spray on mentally ill inmates, a step taken after disclosures about the controversial death of a Mule Creek prison inmate on Sept. 7.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton gave attorneys in the case 30 additional days to seek evidence in the death of Joseph Duran, a 35-year-old mentally ill inmate who died hours after he was pepper sprayed for refusing to let go of the food port in his cell door.
Duran, who breathed through a tube in his throat as a result of a 2006 tracheotomy, was left in his cell despite a doctor’s orders that he be removed and decontaminated. He was found dead seven hours later.
The inmate’s death came as lawyers for the state’s mentally ill inmates were pursuing a motion in a class action lawsuit partially aimed at reducing the use of force – especially pepper spray – against prisoners.
Attorneys for the inmates say they were not told that Duran died after being subjected to pepper spray, and they asked Karlton to reopen a hearing on their motion, despite the fact that testimony on it concluded in December.
Subsequent reviews say Duran died of asphyxia and do not blame the pepper spraying for his death.
State attorneys say the inmates’ lawyers were notified about the use of pepper spray on Duran and argued in court papers that the issue should not be reopened.
“Defendants are taking this matter very seriously,” attorneys for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wrote in documents filed in federal court Wednesday night in preparation for today’s hearing.
“Corrective actions are underway and a system-wide change to the use-of-force policy is being implemented,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “There is also an ongoing investigation into whether disciplinary action should be taken against staff in this matter.”
Corrections officials never notified the family of his death. Prison officials called a phone number for the Duran’s parents, Steve and Elaine Duran, that had been disconnected and later sent a telegram to a home they had not lived in for years.
The Durans learned their son was dead in January, when they were contacted by The Bee. They have since retained Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz to represent them and traveled from their Whittier home to attend today’s hearing.
The couple, both wearing “Justice for Joey” buttons, said afterward that they wanted to be present to demonstrate that their son had a loving family.
Before the Durans learned their son had died, the prison had his body cremated and the ashes scattered at sea.
The Amador County coroner declared in November that Duran committed suicide by stuffing spaghetti and fecal matter into his stoma – the hole in his throat he breathed through –after yanking out his breathing tube.
A subsequent review of the death for corrections officials later disputed that finding, concluding Duran was using the pasta to soothe irritation from the pepper spray and that his death likely was preventable.
The corrections department decided the death was “accidental,” not a suicide.
On Wednesday, the court-appointed receiver overseeing mental health care in the prisons finalized the cause of death as “either an ‘accidental injury to self’ or ‘unknown,’” according to the court documents filed Wednesday night.
In arguing that the hearing into use of force should not be reopened, corrections officials noted that changes have already been made in the department’s use of force policies. In documents filed Jan. 21, after the Bee began inquiring about the death, the department noted that new policies “significantly limit pepper spray use when an inmate refuses to allow staff to close and secure a food/security port.”
“Staff may no longer use pepper spray simply because an inmate is holding a food/security port open,” the documents state. “Rather, force is permitted only when the ‘inmate presents an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or inmate...
“Even when an immediate threat exists, staff may only apply ‘a single 3-second burst of chemical agents against the inmate to secure the food/security port.’”
In Duran’s case, guards decided his refusal to come out of his cell constituted an emergency and corrections officials say he was subjected to a two-second burst of pepper spray from six feet away.