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Michigan Prisoner Awarded $16,500 for Guard’s Assault and Cover-up

A Michigan federal jury found a guard at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility (GHCF) had assaulted a prisoner and tried to cover it up, and awarded $16,500 in damages.

Ali Muthana was being served a meal in his confinement cell at GHCF, which houses mentally ill prisoners, on March 5, 2013. As he watched guard Lance Sumeral pass out trays, he noticed Sumeral was “contaminating the bread that was being passed out by touching the door slot first, than [sic] handling my bread which he passed to me.”

According to attorney Dan Manville, prisoners in units at GHCF throw feces, urine and blood through the food slots of their cell doors or on the door and around the slot. Guards do not provide disinfectants, giving out only sponges to use with water from the cell’s sink to clean up the mess.

Muthana asked Sumeral to provide him “with bread that hadn’t been directly touched after touching the door slots with the same gloves. Or let me get the bread myself.” That outraged Sumeral, and he told Muthana to take his hand out of the door slot.

As Muthana persisted in asking for uncontaminated bread, Sumeral, who stands 6’4” and weighs 250 pounds, took a step back and kicked the door slot shut on Muthana’s hand. The guard said he would break his hand and called him a “fucking Arab bitch.”

In an incident report, Sumeral and other guards never mentioned the kicking of the food slot. Instead, Sumeral alleged Muthana assaulted him by grabbing his arm, and Muthana was later found guilty of assaulting an officer.

Other guards helped to cover up the incident by moving the surveillance camera so it did not point to Muthana’s cell.

Prison officials were alerted to the situation when supervisors overheard talk about it. An investigation was launched. About a month after the incident Sumeral changed his story, telling an investigator that Muthana only swiped at him. Manville said the video supported Muthana’s claim that he only tried to grab a piece of bread.

Sumeral was suspended for 15 days and other guards were disciplined. In January 2018, the jury in Muthana’s civil rights lawsuit found Sumeral had used excessive force, and awarded $1,500 in compensatory damages plus $15,000 in punitive damages. The Michigan Department of Corrections refused to represent Sumeral, causing him to hire his own attorney. Muthana had filed his complaint pro se, but was represented in subsequent proceedings by Manville and his students at the Michigan State University Law College’s Civil Rights Clinic.

On June 19, 2018, the district court awarded Muthana $24,750 in attorney fees and $1,342.96 in costs. See: Muthana v. Sumeral, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:13-cv-14471-MOB-MKM. 

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Related legal case

Muthana v. Sumeral