Oregon Prison Guard Union Sues Mentally Ill Prisoners
Oregon prison officials report that around 16 percent of the state’s 14,500 prisoners are “severely mentally ill.” In 2013 the union representing Oregon guards began suing some of those prisoners, in part to “hold them accountable” for physical altercations involving prison staff, according to Mike Van Patten, an Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) sergeant and president of the Association of Oregon Correctional Employees (AOCE).
On January 4, 2013, Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) guard Jeffrey Parnell filed suit in state court against prisoner Nikolas John Hainz, 22, seeking damages for assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Parnell alleged that Hainz, who is HIV-positive, bit the inside of his cheek until it bled and then spat on him.
In March 2013, two other guards sued three more prisoners. OSCI guard James Cory West filed suit against prisoner Andrew Jacob McKay for sticking a finger in West’s eye during an altercation. Likewise, OSP guard John Helm sued two different prisoners. He alleged that one, Troy Stokke, had punched him about 20 times after knocking him down; when another prisoner came to Helm’s aid, Stokke stabbed him with a pencil.
Like Parnell, West and Helm sued the prisoners for assault or battery, or both, and sought $20,000 in damages.
Three of the prisoners sued by the guards were listed as “severely mentally ill” and one reportedly showed symptoms of mental illness, according to prison incident reports.
It is far from clear why the guard union believes that suing prisoners, including those who are mentally ill, will be effective in holding them accountable when prisoners who assault prison staff already face disciplinary sanctions – including segregation – and are potentially subject to new criminal charges.
Since 1999 it has been a felony for prisoners to throw bodily fluids on prison employees; assaulting a guard is also a felony. Convictions can result in an additional five years in prison, imposed consecutively to the sentence a prisoner is already serving.
Van Patten admitted that altercations with prisoners are “the nature of the beast,” but said the lawsuits were necessary to send a message because “assaults on staff have gotten worse.”
Except they haven’t. In 1999 the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) reported 115 prisoner-on-staff assaults and a population of 9,400 prisoners. In 2013, ODOC officials reported 126 staff assaults and a prison population of 14,500. In other words, while the population increased 54.2 percent, the number of staff assaults increased just 10 percent. That represents an almost 30 percent decrease in the rate of staff assaults between 1999 and 2013.
“For us, one assault is too much,” Van Patten stated. “We didn’t get hired by the department to be punching bags.”
Adding insult to injury, the union initially retained Sean Riddell, disgraced former Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) Chief Criminal Counsel, to sue prisoners who had physical altercations with guards.
As previously reported in PLN, on June 17, 2011 the DOJ demoted Riddell and suspended him for two months after it was discovered that he had destroyed government e-mails. While employed as the DOJ’s Chief Criminal Counsel, Riddell fostered a “shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality” and was accused of using unethical bullying tactics to try to intimidate and coerce witnesses into lying. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.40].
“I’m going to use all my 300 attorneys to hit you like a freight train,” he vowed in one case. Riddell resigned from the DOJ in May 2012; ethics complaints filed against him were later dismissed. [See: PLN, Oct. 2013, p.54].
Unfortunately, without the assistance of counsel, prisoners who face lawsuits filed by AOCE members – particularly those who are mentally ill – are almost guaranteed to lose in court. With legal representation they could assert affirmative defenses, file counterclaims against guards who instigated or encouraged the altercations, and possibly raise claims of contributory negligence, excessive force, inadequate training and supervision, etc.
In a March 10, 2015 phone interview with PLN, the attorney currently representing the AOCE members in lawsuits against prisoners, Becky Gallagher, said around 20 suits have been filed in state court. Of those, 10 to 15 have resulted in default judgments while the others remain pending. The judgments have been for $20,000 each. She stated she is paid a flat rate by the AOCE to litigate the cases; none of the judgments have thus far been collected.
That may change, however. A bill introduced in the Oregon legislature, HB 2761, would allow prisoners’ institutional accounts to be garnished to satisfy judgments that result from an “assault or battery” on an ODOC employee. According to Gallagher, the bill is modeled after a similar statute in Washington state. A public hearing on HB 2761 was held on February 19, 2015, and an ODOC official testified that while the department agrees “with the concept of the bill,” there are concerns that paying judgments to staff members would take precedence over collections for “victim restitution ..., child support, or court fees and fines.” Therefore, the ODOC requested additional time “to discuss these concerns and ideas.”
Sources: Statesman Journal, The Oregonian, www.kgw.com
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