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$750,000 Settlement Paid by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for Wrongful Death

by Christopher Zoukis
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a wrongful death case brought by the parents of a mentally ill prisoner who died after prison guards sprayed him in the face and in his breathing tube with pepper spray. The deal was reached after a settlement conference held in August 2016 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman.
The details surrounding the September 2014 death of Joseph Damien Duran are highly disturbing. Duran suffered from severe mental illness and had been in and out of jail and prison since he was 15 years old. He breathed through a tube that was surgically implanted in his neck. At the time of his death, he was being held at Mule Creek State Prison in a mental health crisis bed. He was refusing to take his antipsychotic medications, believing them to be poisonous, and was exhibiting suicidal ideations.
During the evening medication rounds on September 6, 2014, Duran refused to remove his hands from the open food port in his cell door. After receiving approval from Sergeant Mark Shepard, prison guard Roy C. Chavez sprayed Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray directly into Duran’s face and breathing tube. The guards then shut the food port and left.
Over the next several hours, medical staff told guards to remove Duran from his cell so that he could be decontaminated. Despite these orders, and the observations of multiple staff members that Duran was experiencing an acute medical crisis, guards refused to remove Duran from the cell.
During the last few hours of his life, guards and other staff witnessed his agonizing death and did nothing to help. Duran struggled to breath, spit up blood and repeatedly removed his tracheostomy tube. He also rubbed his stomach area vigorously, and inserted spaghetti noodles and possibly fecal matter in an apparent effort to stop the burning of the pepper spray.
Duran was “discovered” dead on the floor of his cell the next morning at 5:07 a.m. The Amador County Coroner’s Office initially classified his death as a suicide. After failing to notify Duran’s parents of his death, CDCR had him cremated and his ashes tossed in the ocean.
Steven and Elaine Duran learned of their son’s death four months later, when an investigative reporter from The Sacramento Bee contacted them for an interview. The Durans had not seen Joseph in two years, and thought that he was being held in the Los Angeles County Jail, which they believed was a safer place for him than where his mental illness had driven him — the streets.
After learning the gruesome details of their son’s death, the Durans sued the CDCR, as well as all of the guards and staff involved in what they called a homicide, not a suicide. Stewart Katz represented the Durans, who demanded $6.75 million in their federal lawsuit. Katz said the $750,000 settlement was a significant sum, coming from the CDCR in the early stages of litigation.
“I don’t think they’ve ever paid out that much at that stage of the proceedings,” Katz said. “But, obviously, money doesn’t replace loss of life.”
The lawsuit also contributed to changes in CDCR policy on the use of force against mentally ill prisoners. New policy prohibits guards from deploying pepper spray simply because a prisoner refuses to let go of an open food port in an otherwise locked cell.
The Sacramento Bee reported that an internal CDCR investigation into Duran’s death resulted in one staff member’s termination. But it wasn’t anyone actually involved in Duran’s death or the subsequent attempted cover-up, it was the staff psychologist who leaked details of the disturbing situation to a Bee reporter. Attorney Katz called the firing of psychologist Eric Reininga “outrageous.”
“The fact of the matter is the people involved in this were promoted and the one person who steps outside the box to try and do something right winds up getting terminated,” said Katz. “I mean, it’s perverse.” See: Duran v. Chavez, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 2:14-cv-02048-TLN-CKD
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Related legal case

Duran v. Chavez, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC)