State and Amador County officials have agreed to pay out $750,000 to the parents of an inmate who died after being blasted in the face with pepper spray by prison guards despite the fact that he breathed through a tube in his throat and was securely locked in his cell.
The settlement over the September 2013 death of inmate Joseph Damien Duran is one of the largest in the last decade in the Sacramento region resulting from conduct by prison officials.
In a federal civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit, Duran’s parents accused corrections officials of trying to cover up their son’s gruesome death by failing to notify them that he was dead, then having the body cremated and the ashes dumped in the sea.
Duran’s death initially was classified as a “suicide” by the Amador County coroner’s office, which investigated because Duran died in the county at Mule Creek State Prison, about 35 miles southeast of Sacramento.
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Stewart Katz, the Sacramento attorney representing Duran’s adoptive parents, originally sought a $6.75 million payout, court records state. But California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials “reported shock and dismay at this figure and did not present a counter figure,” Katz wrote in court papers.
Instead, the two sides engaged in a settlement conference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman this month and agreed to the $750,000 settlement.
“I don’t think they’ve ever paid out that much at that stage of the proceedings,” Katz said Monday. “But, obviously, money doesn’t replace loss of life.”
Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison declined comment Monday on the settlement.
The case represented an embarrassment for the Corrections Department. It also resulted in the reopening of a federal court hearing that led to rule changes governing how pepper spray may be used against mentally ill inmates. Duran had a history of serious mental illness that was documented in prison records.
The Corrections Department also apologized to the Durans over the fact that they learned of their son’s death from a Sacramento Bee reporter four months after the incident rather than receiving a formal notification from prison officials.
The state later tightened its rules on what efforts must be made to notify next of kin of an inmate’s death.
Duran’s death spawned a series of internal investigations by corrections officials into what happened and an inquisition as to how The Bee learned of the matter. It all resulted in the firing of only one person, Katz said: the Corrections Department psychologist who leaked confidential documents to The Bee.
“It’s outrageous,” Katz said. “The fact of the matter is the people involved in this were promoted and the one person who steps outside of the box to try and do something right winds up getting terminated.
“I mean, it’s perverse.”
Psychologist Eric Reininga said he leaked the information because he believed Duran’s death at the prison near Ione and others were being covered up by a “code of silence” in the department. He has sued corrections officials claiming he was fired contrary to public policy after acting as a whistleblower.
His dismissal came after a yearlong probe that included investigators obtaining phone records for Reininga, as well as for his wife, television journalist Joyce Mitchell, his lawsuit says.
Reininga has said he felt he had no choice but to reveal Duran’s death.
“I knew the story needed to get out,” he said in an April interview. “I knew it was wrong.”
Reininga’s lawsuit is still pending.
Duran’s father, Steven, met with Reininga and his wife over dinner in Sacramento after the settlement was reached to thank him for what he did in publicly disclosing the death and the circumstances.
Joseph Duran died at age 35. It was the end of a troubled life, plagued by mental illness, drug abuse and crime that kept him locked up for most of the time after he turned 15.
The Durans adopted him when he was 5 years old, after, they say, he was born to drug-addicted parents. They raised him in Southern California.
The Durans are now divorced and live in Whittier. Back in September 2013, they had not seen their son in two years. They said they thought he was being held in the Los Angeles County jail, where they believed he was safer than on the streets.
In reality, Duran had been sent from jail in August 2013 to North Kern State Prison to begin serving a seven-year sentence for robbery. He was written up for assaulting a corrections officer within hours of his arrival and later began discussing suicide.
This behavior got him transferred to a mental health bed at Mule Creek, where he refused to take his medications because he believed he was being poisoned, internal corrections documents state.
Duran was placed on suicide watch on Sept. 6, 2013, but that precaution was later canceled. At 10:30 that night, Duran was gripping the food port in his cell door and refusing to release it when officers confronted him and guard Roy C. Chavez blasted him in the face and neck with pepper spray, then closed the food port.
Duran, who breathed through a tube in his throat as a result of a 2006 confrontation with law enforcement, was left in his cell for hours despite repeated efforts by medical staff to have the guards remove him and get the chemical off of him.
“It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which a person suffered such intense and continuous pain prior to his death,” Katz argued in court filings. “Given the facts of this case, a rational pain-and-suffering damages award could easily be seven figures.”
Duran was found dead in his cell the next morning, but no official announcement was made about his death. Prison officials made a phone call to a number for Duran’s parents that had been disconnected, then sent a telegram to a Pico Rivera address where the family lived when Duran was a boy.
No other efforts were made to locate the Durans, despite the fact that their contact information was available through online searches. The inmate was cremated 17 days after his death. His ashes were scattered at sea.
The Durans sued Chavez and other guards, medical staff, Amador County officials and the funeral home that cremated the body. (Chavez died of brain cancer as the suit was progressing.)
Katz said the lawsuit and its settlement allowed the parents to avoid a lengthy trial and gave them the satisfaction of knowing that their son’s death partially contributed to critical changes in how force is used against mentally ill inmates.
The changes include rules that say guards cannot use pepper spray simply because an inmate will not relinquish control of the food port in a cell door. New policies also require that once pepper spray is used, guards must wait at last three minutes before using it again.
“The family took some solace knowing that this clearly led to policy changes,” Katz said.