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Mentally Ill, Disabled CDCR Prisoner Dies Following Use of Force Incident

by Christopher Zoukis

On September 7, 2013, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoner Joseph Duran, 35, a mentally ill inmate who breathed through the use of a tube in his throat, died following a use of force incident. He had been pepper-sprayed in the face for refusing to remove his hands from a food slot in his cell door.

Following guards' forcible entry into Duran's cell, medical staff repeatedly requested for Duran to be removed from the cell and decontaminated. They refused. Over the next seven hours he ripped out his breathing tube and allegedly forced spaghetti and feces into the hole in his throat from a 2006 tracheotomy. While the Amador County coroner deemed his death a suicide, a subsequent CDCR review determined that it was an accidental death and that Duran had been attempting to "soothe" the burning in his throat from the chemical irritant.

On September 4, 2014, Duran's parents, Steven and Elaine Duran, filed a wrongful death suit in federal court in Sacramento. Attorney Stewart Katz represents the family. Among the allegations are that CDCR staff used excessive force and engaged in a cover-up. The lawsuit names 13 CDCR officials, including Mule Creek Warden William Knipp, Amador County Sheriff Martin Ryan, the funeral home, and guard Roy Chavez, who is identified as the one who deployed the chemical irritant.

The cover-up allegations stem from several sources. CDCR Psychologist Corey Scheidegger advised investigators that she was directed to remove references to pepper-spray from a report. The family also wasn't notified of Duran's death until four months after the fact, after his body had already been cremated. The Sacramento Bee notified the family, not CDCR officials. This resulted in physical evidence being destroyed.

In addition to the family's civil suit, Duran's death has also caught the attention of attorneys suing CDCR in a class action lawsuit focused on abuse of mentally ill inmates, particularly as it concerns use of force and the utilization of pepper-spray. While fact testimony concluded in December 2013, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton has granted the plaintiffs' attorneys 30 additional days to seek evidence specific to Duran's death.

In the wake of Duran's death, the CDCR has revised its policies concerning death notifications and use of force.