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Prisoner's Death Throws Utah DOC into Turmoil

On March 19, 1997, Michael Valent--a schizophrenic prisoner housed in the mental health wing of a Utah prison--died while confined in a "restraining chair." Valent was strapped into the device for 16 hours without a break, his arms and legs immobilized. Preliminary findings indicate the 29-year-old prisoner died when blood clots broke loose after they formed in his legs, lodging in a lung. Blood clots may form in extremities when muscle movement is restricted for long periods.

About a week after Valent's death, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Utah state officials requesting a moratorium on use of the "restraining chair" by prison officials.

The prison's response was blunt. "It ain't going to happen," said DOC spokesman Jack Ford. "We've got people today who are trying to kill themselves. We will use the chair as needed, when necessary."

The ACLU sent the letter to Gov. Michael Leavitt, then Corrections Director O. Lane McCotter, Utah Atty. Gen. Jan Graham and others. The ACLU told Utah officials that use of the chair to punish prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment. The letter asked prison officials to contact the ACLU within a week "so that we can begin substantive discussions to resolve this matter." If prison officials failed to respond by the deadline, the letter warned, the ACLU may file a lawsuit.

Ford told Stephen Hunt, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, that prison officials would ignore the deadline.

"They [the ACLU] don't run the Department of Corrections," he said. 'They are not putting deadlines on us."

ACLU officials say they are investigating 14 complaints involving use of the chair, including allegations it is used as punishment. The Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City is also investigating four cases where the restraint chair may have been used inappropriately against mentally-ill prisoners.

The two organizations have also notified the state of their intent to sue the prison over its use of another restraint device called "the board," on which they say one prisoner was strapped in a prone position for 12 weeks.

Ford denied that restraints are used to punish prisoners. "If we want to punish them, we lock them in their cells and take away privileges," he told reporters.

This initial "tough stance" by the DOC turned out to be a miscalculation. Harsh press coverage and public reaction engendered a DOC retreat within days.

DOC attorney Frank Mylar sent a conciliatory letter to the ACLU and the Disability Law Center stating that use of the chair had been suspended since Valent's death. In the letter, Mylar denied the prison was bowing to "threats of litigation" or "media hype."

'This action was taken ... because it is good correctional practice to review policies and procedures anytime an incident occurs," he wrote. DOC spin doctor Ford followed with an announcement to the press that he was "asking for input, to see if we are doing something we shouldn't."

"We don't want this to happen again," said Ford, adding that he was trying to get further information about the device from the Oregon manufacturer. "If the ACLU has some idea of a better way, we'll listen," said Ford.

In mid-April, an Associated Press investigation led to the revelation that the Utah DOC's full-time director of medical services, Robert Dennis Jones, was paid $143,308 for his state services, plus $21,076 in "on-call" pay, while at the same time holding down four additional part-time jobs in the private sector.

The scope of press scrutiny was widened by Brian Maffly of the Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly exposed the questionable DOC hiring of Dr. David Egli, whose decision to place Valent in the restraining chair arguably led to the prisoner's death.

Maffly revealed that in 1989 Egli was charged by state prosecutors with felony fraud in connection with $42,000 he collected in bogus Medicaid billings. Egli pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and was placed on 18 months probation.

But that wasn't Egli's first, or last, brush with criminal or ethical violations. In 1985 he faced prescription fraud charges for illegally supplying a family friend with strong painkillers. The friend, Glen Taylor, was assigned to live with Egli and his family by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Taylor returned to Utah from a church mission.

Egli told patients that Taylor was a pre-med student and allowed Taylor to treat some of them. Taylor is not trained in psychiatry and, according to DOPL records, has been wanted on prescription fraud charges for 10 years. Criminal charges were dismissed against Egli in the case but his professional license was placed on probation for 10 years in 1985.

Then in 1991 Egli appeared before the licensing board in connection with allegations by some patients of bizarre behavior. Egli reportedly had male patients stand on one foot and place the other foot on his crotch -- purportedly to asses their balance. Two patients reported that Egli appeared to get sexual gratification from these "tests."

That incident led to the placement of Egli's license on probation for a second time in 1991, and although he was then on both criminal and professional probation, the Physician's Licensing Board allowed Egli to continue practicing. It did, however, insist that he work in a "group setting."

Several months later Egli was hired by the DOC. Prison officials, including Executive Director of Corrections O. Lane McCotter, were aware of Egli's questionable past, but decided to hire him anyway. Robert Jones, the prison's medical director, said if he had it to do over, he would not hesitate to hire Egli again.

"I know he [Egli] has some questionable things in his past," said Jones, "but today he is an excellent psychiatrist. He is caring. Dr. Egli, as well as the rest of the staff, was extremely devastated. They cared for Michael Valent very much."

But Egli didn't demonstrate that care prior to Valent's death. He reportedly authorized guards by phone to strap Valent into the device. According to published news accounts, Egli arrived at the prison 12 hours later. But instead of checking on Valent right away, as policy dictates, he attended meetings for a few hours before ordering his release from the chair. Valent dropped dead moments later.

Christine Godnick, a former medical licensing investigator who probed the Egli-Taylor case in 1985, criticized statements made by Jones about hiring Egli as part of his "rehabilitation." Godnick said Egli demonstrated little rehabilitative potential to her.

"He [Egli] lied to me," Godnick said. "You don't take a psychiatrist who can't get a job anywhere else, the worst of the worst, and send him out to the prison," she said. "The inmates deserve better."

The heat on the DOC generated by a continued critical press coverage led to McCotter's resignation at a May 9 press conference. Standing shoulder to shoulder with republican governor Mike Leavitt, the 56-year-old McCotter stated that he was "certainly not retiring," and that he would stay on as interim director pending a search for his replacement. Both McCotter and the governor insisted that he was not being "forced out." Governor Leavitt said he and McCotter had concluded that the department needed "fresh leadership."

We at PLN would like to thank our readers who sent newspaper clippings and updates on this story. Though the Utah DOC has been thrown into turmoil by Michael Valent s death, and its director has stepped down, it remains to be seen whether any substantive changes will occur or what, if any, civil or criminal sanctions will be imposed. The real tragedy, it would seem, is that the public and press scrutiny of the Utah DOC probably would not have occurred were it not for the death of Michael Valent. A PLN reader sums things up nicely:

"I have been strapped to the chair and the board," he writes. "This is no doubt torture. Myself and other prisoners have contacted the ACLU about this form of torture, but they would do nothing until someone was murdered.... My friend Mike is now in a better place, but what sucks is that the ones that killed him, in the long run, will get away with murder."

Sources: Salt Lake Tribune, AP, Reader Mail

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