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Restrained Washington Prisoner Exonerated in Assault on Guard

by Terry A. Kupers and Marybeth Dingledy

Rodney Gitchel had been in 4-point restraints for two months inside the Special Offenders Center (S.O.C.) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington when he struggled free of the restraints and assaulted the next guard who entered his cell. He faced the possibility of five additional years in prison as he stood trial in Everett, Washington, February 27 through March 3, 2000, for assault on a guard. After hearing testimony from Dr. Fred Davis, the prison psychiatrist who ordered Gitchel placed in restraints as part of an experimental "treatment" designed to cure angry outbursts and repetitive rule violations; testimony from fellow prisoners who reported the defendant had suffered unusually harsh deprivations and brutality; and testimony from psychologist Dr. Lee Gustafson and psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers, for the defense; the jury voted nine to three in favor of acquittal.

Gitchel had been in prison for approximately four years when the assault occurred. During the first year he had three disciplinary infractions, in the second year he had six, including the one that led to his transfer to the Intensive Management Unit at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center. During his first year in punitive segregation he had 63 infractions, and in the year ending with the assault he had 139. When asked why so many infractions, Gitchel explained: "Once they put me in a strip cell, I don't know what happened, I just kept getting in trouble .... They never told me what I could do to get out, I believed I'd be in there forever." Then, a few days after the assault, he was transferred to another facility in Shelton, WA, and had no infractions for the ensuing year, or until the trial began.

The defense focused on diminished capacity. According to Dr. Kupers, the defendant suffered from SHU Syndrome, a psychiatric condition often seen in prisoners subjected to longterm, punitive solitary confinement. Symptoms include massive anxiety, perceptual distortions, difficulty concentrating, unreality feelings, confusion and intense anger that is difficult to contain. In addition, the defendant was placed in restraints. Dr. Kupers testified that clinical and ethical standards prohibit continual use of restraints. Finally, there was disorientation from sleep deprivation, since staff woke him every hour to adjust the restraints and the lights were always on. Dr. Kupers explained that all of these factors combined to create greatly diminished capacity and prevent Gitchel from forming the intent to harm. The defendant did not even remember the assault. And the fact that the defendant received no further write-ups after being transferred to another prison and placed in general population, lent credence to the notion that the defendant is quite capable of getting along with others and programming successfully if he is not brutalized and provoked.

According to Ms. Marybeth Dingledy, Snohomish County Asst. Public Defender and Rodney Gitchel's attorney, the problem was that Rodney got caught in a vicious cycle. "Because of his emotional make up, Rodney would react to provocation in a way that many of the other prisoners would not. When the guards would get mad at him and punish him, Rodney would fight back with whatever he had, causing further punishment and more problems. The 'treatment' of Rodney was basically what you would do to a dog as a last resort. How could you not expect a person treated in such a fashion to lash out at whomever was around?"

Ms. Dingledy continued: "There are a number of things that bother me about this case. First and foremost is the way Rodney was treated by the system. Second, that this case went to trial at all. What was the point? Putting him in solitary confinement, taking away everything, including good time, and tying him down for two months wasn't enough? They wanted to keep him in the system for another five years?" The District Attorney announced there will be no new trial.

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Related legal case

State v. Gitchel