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Iowa Prisoner Awarded $1,000 for Jail Beating

A late December 2016 decision by the Board of Supervisors for Black Hawk County, Iowa not to appeal a federal judge’s ruling paved the way for a $1,000 judgment won by a prisoner who was beaten by other prisoners.

James Robert Ernst II was being held at the Black Hawk County jail for the December 2014 shooting death of Orintheo Campbell, Jr. Ernst was assaulted on March 30, 2015 after being placed in a pod with Campbell’s relatives and gang associates. Several of Ernst’s assailants were on a list of prisoners the jail knew to keep separate from him, including Perquondis Holmes, who participated in the beating.

Ernst, who suffered minor injuries, represented himself in the lawsuit and claimed the actions of jail staff violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

County officials blamed a software error for the mistake, claiming that Holmes’ name did not appear “easily” when a guard checked the jail’s “keep separate” list.

A federal magistrate accused jailers of “half-hearted[ly]” reviewing the keep separate list, and found they should be held civilly liable for the negligence that led to Ernst being assaulted.

The magistrate recommended that Ernst be awarded $500, but U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. McManus (since deceased) doubled that amount when he adopted the report and recommendation.

Attorney John McCoy, who represented the defendants, said the cost of appealing the award far outweighed the $1,000 judgment. County officials stated they intended to keep Ernst in protective custody at the jail, but moved him to less restrictive housing and then to general population after he complained about his conditions of confinement.

The $1,000 judgment, entered on December 22, 2016, was below the county’s insurance deductible and will be paid from the jail’s budget. Ernst was later convicted of Campbell’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. See: Ernst v. Black Hawk County Jail, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Iowa), Case No. 6:16-cv-02005-EJM. 


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Related legal case

Ernst v. Black Hawk County Jail