Oregon DOC Sees Spike in Gang-related Murders
“This is a systemic problem,” said attorney Dennis Steinman, who represented the widow of an Oregon prisoner murdered in his cell. “This is not only about Snake River. This is about the prisons statewide.” Steinman appears to be correct, given that at least seven Oregon prisoners were killed by fellow prisoners – most with gang ties – between May 2011 and December 2014.
Michael C. Hagen, 28, was transferred to the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) in July 2010, where “inmate-on-inmate violence is prevalent” according to federal court filings. Hagen, who had never been incarcerated before, “attempted to stay out of trouble, avoid conflict as much as possible, and refused to fight even when provoked.”
In early 2011, a group of at least eight white supremacist gang members targeted Hagen for retaliation for refusing to serve as the gang’s tattoo artist. They claimed he was a snitch, according to a subsequent federal lawsuit. As a result Hagen was assaulted by his cellmates, seriously enough to be hospitalized on one occasion.
He repeatedly requested a transfer to another facility “because of his fear of being violently attacked by another inmate, including ... a member of the white prison gang,” a federal lawsuit alleged. Prison officials ignored his pleas.
Hagen was housed with James DeFrank just days before DeFrank beat prisoner Chris Lange to death on SRCI’s recreation yard on May 21, 2011. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.50]. Hagen’s next cellmate punched him and told him to get out of the cell, according to the lawsuit. He was segregated for refusing to return to the cell despite telling guards that he feared for his safety. While in segregation, Hagen continued to unsuccessfully request a transfer.
In October 2011, a new cell partner’s first words to Hagen were “We are going to have a problem.” They soon fought and Hagen was again placed in segregation.
While there, Hagen learned that the prisoner he had fought with wanted him “taken out.” He wrote to his counselor requesting to stay in segregation “because he was so afraid that he would be attacked again.”
Prison officials finally told Hagen that he would be sent to a different facility after he served his time in the hole, but that did not happen. Hagen reportedly reached out to black gang members with the Bloods and Crips to seek their protection but they refused, citing prison racial politics that prohibited them from helping white prisoners.
On February 2, 2012, a guard ordered the terrified Hagen to move into a cell with Terry R. Lapich, 32, “a known member of the white prison gang and known violent criminal.” The guard did nothing when he heard Hagen scream as Lapich beat and stomped him less than two hours later, according to federal court filings. Hagen was found unconscious with blunt force trauma to his head; he died the next day. Lapich was charged with his murder.
Hagen’s widow, Tiffany, filed suit in federal court against prison officials, alleging they were deliberately indifferent to her husband’s safety. She also filed a state negligence action against the Oregon DOC for failing to protect prisoners, properly train prison employees and effectively manage gangs. Such negligence was a “substantial factor” in her husband’s death, the lawsuit claimed. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.38].
Prison officials refused to comment, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation. Tiffany Hagen was represented in both legal actions by Steinman, an associate with the Portland law firm of Kell, Alterman & Runstein, LLP.
Since Hagen’s murder, SRCI prisoner Jason Gould was beaten to death by his cell partner on June 28, 2013; Oregon State Penitentiary prisoner Joseph Akins was strangled to death by his cellmate on August 17, 2013 [see: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.60]; Two Rivers Correctional Institution (TRCI) prisoner Shane Michael Morris, 39, was killed by his cell partner on January 27, 2014; and Damion Banks, 31, was murdered in his cell at TRCI on February 5, 2014.
Nor did the homicides stop there. Terry Goodman, serving time for child neglect and drug-related charges, was beaten to death at SRCI by another prisoner on December 11, 2014. His mother has since filed suit against prison officials. The Oregon State Police is investigating several other deaths that occurred at SRCI in early 2016.
Thomas Riffenburg pleaded guilty to killing Gould and was sentenced to life in prison in November 2015. Craig Dennis Bjork, already serving a life sentence, was indicted for Akins’ murder in December 2015; he had beaten another prisoner to death in Minnesota in 1997. Both Morris and Banks were convicted of sex crimes and became the second and third Oregon sex offenders to be found dead in their prison cells within a three-month period.
In April 2015, after admitting negligence, the Oregon DOC agreed to settle both lawsuits filed by Hagen’s widow for a total of $450,000. See: Hagen v. Williams, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:14-cv-00165-MC.
“This case was a case of human error,” said DOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt, though none of the prison staff members involved were ever disciplined. She further announced the DOC had completed an internal review following Hagen’s death and implemented changes to the housing assignment process and guard training requirements. “Our goal is to ensure that this does not occur again,” she stated.
Yet Oregon prisoners have been murdered again – and again, and again.
Sources: The Oregonian, www.kptv.com, www.opb.org, www.tri-cityherald.com