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Court Upholds California Prison Guard’s Termination for Telling Prisoner to Hang Herself

In March 2012, the California Court of Appeal, 4th District, affirmed a lower court’s judgment that reinstated the termination of a former state prison guard, Thomas Norton, who had told a mentally ill female prisoner to hang herself and then pressured another guard to keep him from reporting what had happened.

On November 23, 2006, while working the night shift in the Support Care Unit at the California Institution for Women, Norton responded to the cell of a prisoner who was screaming because she was hearing voices and hallucinating. He refused to turn on her cell light after she told him that she was afraid of the dark, and then flippantly replied “‘go ahead,’ or go ahead and hang yourself, or words to that effect” when she stated she might commit suicide.

After the unidentified prisoner did try to hang herself, Norton embarked on a campaign of intimidation against another guard, Ryan Campos, who worked with him in the Support Care Unit and was a potential witness, by referring to Campos as a “snitch,” a “pussy,” a “rat,” a “punk” and a liar. Campos didn’t state in his initial report that the prisoner had told Norton she might kill herself, or mention Norton’s callous response, as he did not “want to let [him]self out there to be ostracized by [his] peers.”

Norton was fired six months later, in May 2007; one of the reasons cited for his termination was his failure “to report or respond to a suicidal statement” made by the mentally ill female prisoner. When he appealed his job termination, the State Personnel Board (SPB) reduced his punishment to a 30-day suspension.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation then filed a petition in superior court for a writ of administrative mandamus. The court granted the petition, finding that the reduction in punishment was an abuse of discretion, and ordered the SPB to reinstate Norton’s job termination.

That finding was upheld by the Court of Appeal on March 12, 2012. “We conclude the SPB abused its discretion by reducing Norton’s punishment from termination to a 30-day suspension,” the appellate court wrote. “We therefore affirm the judgment of the trial court.” See: Cate v. California State Personnel Board, 204 Cal.App.4th 270, 138 Cal.Rptr.3d 691 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2012).

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Related legal case

Cate v. California State Personnel Board