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Colorado Guards Joke While Prisoner Dies from Easily Preventable Cause

The death of 35-year-old Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner Christopher Lopez at the San Carols Correctional Facility on March 17, 2013, would have been rejected if submitted as a plot for a novel. It is too unbelievable! Guards found him nearly unconscious on the floor of his cell and, instead of summoning medical personnel, stormed the cell in riot gear and strapped him into a restraint chair with a spit hood on his face while telling the limp prisoner to "stop resisting." They discussed pepper spraying the semi-conscious man, but refrained from doing so because they were short on personnel. They ignored multiple grand mal seizures and eventually released him from the restraint chair, placing him on his side on the cell floor. A nurse arrived--brining the very psychiatric medications which likely caused his death by leaching the sodium from his body. She ignored the medial emergency of a shackled, semi-conscious prisoner who is face down on the cell floor and unable to respond and injected the drugs into his rump as if nothing was amiss. A few hours later, while guards made jokes and mocked him, Lopez struggled to take his last breath and breathed no more.

Even death did not end the indignities heaped on Lopez by DOC personnel. Five minutes after he stopped breathing, on-call mental health clinician Cheryl Neumeister arrived and asked his corpse, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?" through the food slot of the cell. Before leaving, she called out, "I can see you breathing."

Sadly, that statement was a lie. Lopez was dead, although that fact would not be realized by DOC personnel for another 13 minutes. Then, they finally believed he had a medical problem, finally understood that he wasn't "faking it," and finally started CPR. But their actions were too little and far too late to do anything but confirm the death of Christopher Lopez. A coroner would later determine that Lopez died of hyponatremia, severe sodium deficiency. Psychiatric medications are known to lower sodium levels and excessive use of them can lead to fatal hyponatremia.

As a final indignity, the DOC failed to report Lopez's death to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (DHE) for 17 months.

"The facility was obligated to report it (within one day). They did not. A death is a reportable offense," according to Judy Hughes, senior branch chief for the DHE's Health Facilities and Medical Emergency Division (HFMED).

DOC spokesperson Adrienne Jacobson said the death wasn't reported because Lopez died in a cell, not the clinic. HFMED director Randy Kuykendall countered that prisoners receive health care in their cells as well as the clinic, making the death reportable.

Surely this wasn't the first reportable death of a DOC prisoner in a segregation cell. The DOC's claim of not knowing it was reportable is disingenuous at best. But even if they thought it wasn't reportable to the DHE, they can hardly explain their failure to provide an explanation of the death to Lopez's mother. Despite an internal investigation which resulted in the firing of three DOC medical workers and unspecified disciplinary action against five other staff members, the failure to notify the DHE looks like a cover-up as it delayed an outside investigation of the death for over a year.

Aided by Denver attorney David Lane, Lopez's family has filed a civil rights action, Case No. 1:14-cv-01705 in Colorado federal court. Assisting their cause are hours of video recordings showing the cell extraction and the last six miserable hours of Lopez's life.


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