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Wrongful Death Lawsuit Spurs Re-Training of Syracuse, N.Y. Jail Guards

In the wake of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a former prisoner's widow, guards at the Onondaga County Justice Center Jail in Syracuse, N.Y., have purportedly been re-trained in the humane treatment of prisoners with drug abuse and other mental health issues.

The Onondaga County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) has also installed about $300,000 worth of new cameras and digital recording equipment throughout the jail, while building a working relationship with the mental health unit of Syracuse's St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center.

All of which are positive developments, albeit too late to save Raul Pinet from an horrific, unnecessary death.

Pinet, 31, reportedly had a long history of drug abuse, as well as two separate prison terms for drug convictions, when he was arrested one night in August 2010. According to police reports, Pinet, a father of six, walked into two strangers' homes that night, high on crack and PCP, and grabbed a 7-year-old child in one of the homes before police apprehended him.

After jail guards booked him, they placed him in a so-called timeout room and placed over him a cloth head-cover–commonly called a "spit mask"–partly made of mesh to allow him to breathe. The guards then reportedly struggled to restrain Pinet, eventually putting him in a leg-lock, face­down.

The struggle caused the spit mask to shift so that the less-permeable cloth was covering his nose and mouth.

After viewing a video of the struggle, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Pinet had screamed "Please!" at least 40 times over the following two minutes. In response to guards telling him to cease resisting, Pinet yelled "OK!" at least eight times. And, regarding the spit mask, he yelled five times, "Get this off my face!"

One guard leaned on Pinet's legs and lower torso, while another guard had his knee in Pinet's side. None of the four guards in the timeout room did anything to reposition the spit mask. Pinet then began coughing and gurgling.

"LT, they got to turn him to the side," OCSO deputy Allissa Coglitore told Lt. James Barrella when she heard Pinet struggle to breathe. But Barrella didn't respond.

In the video, one guard yelled at Pinet, "Stop moving!" And so he did.

After watching Pinet lie motionless for 57 seconds, the guards rushed out of the timeout room and closed the door. Apparently thinking that Pinet was faking, guards banged on the door, yelled and sprayed water on him through the door.

He lay there for another seven minutes before guards re-entered and tapped his foot and leg. Pinet was dead.

New York's Commission of Correction said Pinet died of positional asphyxia because of the way guards restrained him. The county medical examiner said that, because he was incredibly high on cocaine and in a violent state of delirium, Pinet died of cardiac arrest, but that the guards' restraints contributed to his death. Both agencies said Pinet's death was a homicide.

And yet, in spite of Coglitore's sworn account of Pinet's desperate struggle to live, stacks of reports by other guards and the jail videotapes, an Onondaga County grand jury that investigated Pinet's death in 2012 decided the guards' actions were not criminal.

Jeff Eiser, a Cincinnati consultant on training jail and prison guards, agreed with the grand jury's findings.

"I don't think there was any intent to hurt somebody," Eiser said. Still, he believes Barrella and the other guards should have listened to Coglitore when she advised them to turn Pinet on his side.

"It's the recommended position whenever anyone's having distressed breathing under restraint," said Eiser, who has worked as an expert consultant more than 60 times, mostly by counties defending themselves against prisoner lawsuits. "You don't put (prisoners) flat on their stomach unless you absolutely have to."

Though the grand jury found that the guards hadn't committed criminal wrongdoing, it recommended more training for guards on the effects of dangerous drugs on prisoners, and for cases of intoxicated, violent prisoners to be treated as medical emergencies.

Along with the findings of corrections officials and the medical examiner, the grand jury provided myriad grounds for Pinet's widow, Tashara Pinet, to sue Onondaga County in federal court, arguing that guards caused her husband's death by restraining him face-down and then failing to properly observe him.

Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Syracuse chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said jail guards didn't follow protocols for handling unruly prisoners. She added that Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh and other jail officials had failed to learn their lesson since the last time a prisoner died similarly to Raul Pinet.

Pinet's death occurred 16 years after former Onondaga County jail prisoner Johnny Williams died, according to the medical examiner, "from the cumulative effect of his agitated state, a deputy standing on his back, the placement of an emergency response belt over his face and deputies placing him on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back," the Post-Standard reported.

"Why are they repeating fatal failures?" Gewanter asked.


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