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$73,000 Settlement for Denial of Pain Medication to Wisconsin Prisoner

by Matt Clarke

On January 6, 2009, Wisconsin settled a lawsuit brought by a state prisoner who complained of guards preventing him from receiving his pain medication when he was in intense pain, then retaliating against him when he complained about it and filed a state court investigatory action.

Kenneth Harris was a 53-year-old Wisconsin state prisoner at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin when he began to vomit blood, bleed from the rectum and experience excruciating abdominal pain. He was sent to a hospital where the physicians were unable to initially diagnose the intestinal disorder, but scheduled tests for five days later and prescribed him Tylenol with codeine (Tylenol 3) and injections of Toradol each to be taken every six hours as needed. He was then returned to the prison.

Two days later, Harris was experiencing severe pain early in the morning. He asked guards Kally Ryan and Sgt. Linda Hinickle to contact the Health Services Unit (HSU) as he needed a Toradol injection. They allegedly refused to contact HSU, offered only to get him his Tylenol 3 and ordered him to his cell. Harris alleged that he could not take the Tylenol 3 because it had only been 4 hours since he last took one and was ineffective anyway.

Harris returned to the day room area later, again seeking help. Ryan pushed the alarm button to summon a response team. Ryan and Hinickle claim that Harris was aggressive and disruptive. However, when the response team arrived--fully prepared to take down a violent prisoner--one of the team members immediately ordered them to stand down, telling them that Harris was obviously sick, appeared to be in distress and needed to be taken to the HSU. The response team trans-ported Harris to the HSU in a wheelchair. The HSU sent Harris to a hospital where he received an injection of Toradol.

When he returned to the prison, Harris was placed in segregation due to a disciplinary action written by Ryan charg-ing him with disobeying a direct order (to return to his cell) and disruptive conduct. Harris filed grievances over the con-frontation and disciplinary charges. He also filed a ‘John Doe’ proceeding in Columbia County Court alleging that Ryan and Hinickle were criminal culpable for denying him medical treatment. The judge in the “John Doe” proceeding found that Ryan and Hinickle may have been guilty of criminal acts when they denied Harris medical treatment.

Nurse Sue Ward was subpoenaed to bring medical documents to the “John Doe” proceeding. The lawyer for the Department of Corrections wrote the judge a letter, telling him that Ward was under investigation for fraternization. Ward filed a “whistle blower” complaint for retaliation. The judge hearing that case found in Ward’s favor, finding that the disciplinary action taken against her for fraternization and giving medical documents to a prisoner were unjustified and retaliatory and ordering the DOC to pay her costs and legal fees. She resigned citing workplace discomfort and safety concerns.

Harris filed a civil rights suit in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violation of his First and Eighth Amendment rights. Harris hired California prison expert Jerry A. Schwartz, Ph.D. as an expert witness. He prepared a re-port condemning Ryan and Hinickle’s actions, finding that they had a history of confrontations with prisoners and other staff, confirming retaliation against Harris and a cover up, but praising other aspects of the medical care given Harris. Fol-lowing the DOC’s deposition of Schwartz, the case was settled in mediation with no admission of wrongdoing. In addition to the $73,000, the DOC agreed to pay Schwartz’s fees. See: Harris v. Grams, U.S.D.C.-W.D. Wisc., Case No. 07-C-678.

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Related legal case

Harris v. Grams

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.