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Oregon Prison Officials Admit Negligence in Prisoner’s Murder

In the rarest of moves, Oregon prison officials have quickly admitted that negligence was a “substantial factor” in a prisoner’s murder.

In July, 2010, Michael Clarence Hagen began serving a 17 year prison term at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), in Ontario, Oregon. Hagen, who had never been in prison, “attempted to stay out of trouble, avoid conflicts as much as possible, and refused to fight even when provoked,” according to state and federal lawsuits filed by his widow, Tiffany Hagen.

Hagen’s problems began when members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang, discovered that he was a talented artist. Fearing that he would lose his good job as a tutor, Hagen refused to join the gang or tattoo members Terry Lapich and another prisoner, according to court documents.

Lapich and the other prisoner retaliated by having two other prisoners beat Hagen for his refusal, said attorney Dennis Steinman, who represents Hagen’s widow. When Lapich and the other prisoner were disciplined, Hagen was labeled a snitch. As a result, he was repeatedly assaulted by cellmates, seriously enough to be hospitalized on one occasion.

Hagen repeatedly requested a transfer to another prison “because of his fear of being violently attacked,” the suits allege. Prison officials ignored his pleas.

Learning of the snitch jacket, one of Hagen’s cellmates punched him and told him to get out of the cell, the federal suit alleges. When Hagen told guards that he feared for his safety and needed to get away from the man, they told him to return to the cell or go to disciplinary segregation. He chose segregation.

Soon after his return to general population, Hagen was threatened by eight prisoners. When he alerted guards, he was moved to a cell with another white supremacist, who warned Hagen as he entered the cell: “We are going to have a problem.”

Hagen charged him but the prisoner threw him to the ground and stomped on his head. Hagen told a disciplinary hearings officer that he feared for his life and believed fighting the prisoner was his only way out of the cell. He was sanctioned to 120 days in segregation.

While in segregation, Hagen learned that the prisoner he fought with wanted him “taken out.” He wrote his counselor, requesting to stay in segregation “because he was so afraid that he would be attacked again.” Prison officials finally agreed that Hagen faced a legitimate threat and told him “that he would be transferred to a different prison when he had done his time in the hole,” according to the federal suit. Intelligence Officer Mike Foley called segregation staff to alert them that Hagen was being transferred and to order that he not be released from segregation.

Nevertheless, for reasons prison officials have not yet explained, on the morning of February 2, 2012, Hagen was released from segregation. Guards John Gillum and Donald Harris then ordered the terrified Hagen, 28, to enter a cell with Lapich, 32, despite being aware of their well-documented conflict and that Lapich had promised to hurt him.

“Shortly after Mr. Hagen entered the cell, audible screams came from inside the cell,” according to the suit. “Officer Harris heard the screams (and) did not take any action.” Prison officials deny that Harris heard screaming.

Two hours later, Lapich hit an emergency bell, claiming that Hagen had fallen out of his bed. Guards found Hagen unconscious in a pool of blood with boot prints on his head. He was transported to a local hospital, where he died the next day.

Eight days after Hagen’s murder, an unnamed African American gang leader wrote Steinman, apologizing for not protecting Hagen and offering to be a witness against prison officials.

“I know he was very scare(d) for his life, and wanted to do good for his family,” the prisoner wrote. “I couldn’t protect Mr. Hagen because the rules inmate(s) have in prison is fucked up.”

“In Oregon prison, black people only protect black people and white people only protect white people, Mexican only protect Mexican people,” he explained. “I feel very bad for not protect(ing) Mr. Hagen. But I couldn’t.”

Hagen’s widow brought a federal civil rights action, alleging that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to her husband’s safety. The suit seeks $7.5 million in compensatory damages, unspecified punitive damages and attorney’s fees. The case is assigned to United States District Court Judge, and former correctional counselor, Michael McShane.

She also filed a state court negligence and wrongful death action against the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). That suit alleges that negligence was a “substantial factor” in Hagen’s death and that ODOC fails to properly: protect prisoners, train employees, and effectively manage gangs. Hagen also seeks $7.5 million in compensatory damages in that action.

In an obvious, but highly unusual, effort to remove the issue, and damning evidence, of liability from the hands of jurors, ODOC quickly admitted liability in its August 22, 2014 state court answer. ODOC acknowledged that guards violated policy and that negligence was a “substantial factor” in Hagen’s death.

“The state has acknowledged that their actions caused his death and he would still be alive today if they had followed the procedures in place or had adequate policies to prevent this from happening,” said Steinman.

“The DOC has allowed this systemic problem to continue by turning a blind eye and failing to institute policies to protect prisoners throughout the state,” Steinman said. “This is not only about Snake River. This is about prisons statewide.”

Several other Oregon prison murders may have been avoided, suggests Steinman, if ODOC had instituted policies to protect targeted prisoners. ODOC denies that violence is prevalent in Oregon prisons or that its policies, training, or disciplinary structure are inadequate to protect prisoners.

Arguing that Hagen’s $7.5 million state damage prayer grossly exceeds the cap imposed by the Oregon Tort Claims Act, ODOC has requested a jury trial to determine the amount of her damages. Compensatory and punitive damages are not capped in the federal action.

Prison officials recently moved to dismiss Defendants who were added to the federal suit after the statute of limitations expired. Those Defendants could not have been named earlier, however, because the State refused to disclose documents related to Hagen’s murder while building a capital murder case against Lapich. “It is well-settled,” wrote Steinman, that “a statute of limitations should be used only as a shield, not a sword.”

Prison officials and their attorneys have understandably declined further comment on the matter.

Sources: The Oregonian; Associated Press

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