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Lawsuits Filed Over Unrelated Deaths of Two Oregon Prisoners

Just ten days before his release, A 22-year-old autistic Oregon state prisoner died in a segregation cell after injecting himself with an “undetermined drug or toxin,” according to a federal lawsuit filed by his estate and his mother.

On July 21, 2006, Richard Gifford stole about $1,200 from a bank. After being jailed he began acting erratically, and a psychologist diagnosed him as suffering from “a pervasive developmental disorder, or autism spectrum disorder” plus a cognitive disorder and possible oppositional defiant disorder.

Gifford was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, and the court recommended that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) house him at a Federal Psychiatric Medical Facility.

Upon completion of his federal prison term, Gifford was transferred to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) on December 18, 2009 to serve a five-month state sentence. Before Gifford was transferred, the BOP alerted the ODOC on November 24, 2009 that “Gifford had mental health concerns, had spent the last six months in the Special Housing Unit, had suffered numerous head traumas in the past, and had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.”

Apparently, Oregon prison officials did not heed the BOP report. Unaware of his mental health condition, the ODOC housed Gifford in general population.

During the ODOC’s intake process, Gifford could not complete a valid Personality Assessment Inventory. Staff determined that “additional screening [was] needed,” but no meaningful follow-up ever occurred.

On December 29, 2009, ODOC psychologist Charlotte Jeskey interviewed Gifford but failed to recognize that he suffered from a pervasive developmental disorder, even though that diagnosis was documented in his medical file.

Five days later, Gifford was transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). In “four months at OSP, he was charged with 14 incidents of misconduct,” according to the subsequent lawsuit. Except for twelve days, Gifford was held in disciplinary segregation from December 25, 2009 until his death on May 5, 2010.

The lawsuit documents the rapid deterioration of Gifford’s mental state while in segregation. For example, on April 6, 2010, guards asked Behavioral Health Services (BHS) staff to see Gifford because he flooded his cell and covered the front of the cell with sheets and a mattress.

BHS caseworker Christin Farrell accused Gifford of “feigning symptoms in order to get his [disciplinary reports] excused.”

Fearing that Gifford would harm himself, on April 10, 2010, guards put him in a “safety smock,” gave him a “safety blanket” and moved him to Close Supervision Status.

The medical department refused to see Gifford after he told guards on April 12 and 13, 2010 that he felt suicidal. Medical staff dismissed Gifford’s suicidal ideation and claimed he was “simply bored and trying to manipulate staff to relieve his boredom,” according to the lawsuit.

Apparently, Gifford was so “bored” that he sent goodbye letters to his family and the family dog. “The letters described psychotic episodes and stated that he was going to die in custody,” according to the complaint. “He told a younger brother that now he would be in charge. His letter to the family dog stated that he was not going to be able to bring him a bone.”

Gifford’s stepfather was extremely alarmed by the letters and drove from Oakland, California to OSP in Salem, Oregon. He was not allowed to see Gifford, however, because he was not on the visitation list. Prison staff instructed him to fill out a visitor’s application, which would take six weeks to process – even though Gifford was scheduled to be released in less than six weeks.

When Gifford’s counselor, Marshall Buccholz, finally agreed to deliver a letter from Gifford’s stepfather, he found “that Richard was delirious and not making sense.” On April 19, 2010, guards again asked BHS to see Gifford due, in part, to the disturbing letters he had sent his family.

Gifford was seen by Gabriell Gitnes, who had been a BHS Mental Health Specialist for five years but only had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She was not a licensed psychologist, but the ODOC authorized her to diagnose and treat behavioral, emotional and mental disorders, according to the lawsuit.

Gitnes “did not assess, evaluate, or provide any treatment to Richard,” the suit alleges. “She failed to do a Suicide Risk Assessment as required by the Segregation Policy” or to comply with the ODOC’s Suicide Prevention Policy.

On May 5, 2010 – ten days before his release date – Gifford died from an “intravenous injection of undetermined drug or toxin,” an autopsy found. [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.28].
According to ODOC policy, segregation cell checks must be conducted every 30 minutes.
“On the day of Mr. Gifford’s death,” however, the “logs indicate there was a span of over three hours where the guards did not check on the inmates at all,” the lawsuit states. “The records indicate that ... immediately preceding Mr. Gifford’s death, the time periods between rounds were 192 minutes, 38 minutes, 49 minutes, and 44 minutes.” A lapse of “100 or more minutes between tier checks was common.”

Portland attorney Lynn S. Walsh, who represents Gifford’s estate and his mother, Deborah Gifford, in the lawsuit, alleges prison officials violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, and were deliberately indifferent to Gifford’s serious psychiatric needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The suit seeks damages and an award of attorney’s fees; an amended complaint was filed on February 5, 2013, and the case remains pending. See: Gifford v. State of Oregon, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:11-cv-06417-TC.

Another, unrelated Oregon prisoner’s death resulted in legal action after Michael Clarence Hagen, 28, was found beaten and unresponsive in his cell at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) on February 2, 2012. He was rushed to a Boise, Idaho hospital where he died the next day. An autopsy found the cause of death to be homicide due to head injuries, according to deputy state medical examiner Dr. Larry Lewman. [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p. 28].

“He was bloodied to the point of [being] barely recognizable and unresponsive,” according to a May 2012 tort claim notice filed on behalf of Hagen’s wife, Tiffany, by her attorney, Dennis Steinman of Kell, Alterman & Runstein LLP.

Hagen had been incarcerated since May 2010 for a vicious 2009 check-cashing store robbery. He bound and gagged the store clerk and beat her with a baton, shattering her nose and fracturing her skull.

Soon after his arrival at SRCI, Hagen was violently targeted by other prisoners due to “the nature of his crime, his refusal to fight back when attacked by fellow inmates, including those associated with prison gangs, and because he would not pay ‘rent’ to fellow cellmates for the privilege of being housed by them,” the tort claim notice stated.

Other prisoners took advantage of Hagen, threatening to kill him if he didn’t pay, according to Steinman. He “was not someone who was used to being in a horrific environment and dealing with career criminals.”

Hagen reported his altercations with other prisoners to the ODOC but “nothing was done,” said Steinman. His repeated requests to be transferred to another facility were rejected.

Prison officials were aware that extortion and assaults were common. In 2011, the ODOC reported 1,689 prisoner assaults in state facilities. SRCI, Oregon’s largest prison, reported 271 assaults.

Out of sheer desperation, in October 2011 Hagen took matters into his own hands.
Believing that a segregation cell was the only place he would be safe, he fought with another prisoner so he would be sent to the hole.

When he was released from segregation four months later, however, prison officials put him in the same cell as the prisoner who had threatened to kill him if he didn’t pay rent, Steinman said. Hagen was beaten to death just days later.

ODOC and law enforcement officials refused to identify Hagen’s cellmate, but once the investigation is complete, Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris will take the case to the grand jury, according to a police press release.

The tort claim notice filed by Tiffany Hagen alleges a wrongful death claim and states that prison officials have refused her requests for her husband’s personal property, including photographs of their 3-year-old daughter.

Sources: The Oregonian,

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Related legal case

Gifford v. State of Oregon