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$450,000 to Prisoner's Estate for Beating Death

by Mark Wilson

Oregon prison officials have paid $450,000 to settle state and federal claims that systemic gang violence resulted in a prisoner being murdered in his cell. Officials had previously admitted that staff negligence was a “substantial factor” in the murder.

In July 2010, Oregon prisoner Michael Clarence Hagen was transferred to the 3,000-bed, Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), in Ontario, Oregon, the state’s largest prison. “Inmate-on-inmate violence is prevalent at SRCI,” according to state and federal lawsuits filed by his widow, Tiffany Hagen.

In April 2011, white supremacist gang members Terry Lapich and Michael Miskell learned that Hagen was a talented artist and attempted to extort him into doing tattoo work for the gang. He refused because he did not want to lose his tutor job. Two days later, two prisoners assaulted Hagen, on the order of Lapich and Miskell.

SRCI Intelligence Officer Michael Foley was responsible for investigating prisoner conflicts and threats. When he noticed marks on Hagen’s face, Foley asked what happened.

Hagen admitted that Lapich and Miskell had him assaulted for refusing to do tattoo work for the gang, according to court filings. Lapich and Miskell were both disciplined and Hagen was targeted as a snitch.

In May 2011, prisoner James DeFrank was moved into Hagen’s cell. On May 21, 2011, DeFrank murdered prisoner Chris Lange, who he had a longstanding conflict with. Prison officials were aware of the conflict but did not keep them separated.

Hagen was placed in administrative segregation for two days during the investigation of Lange’s murder. He was then returned to general population with a new cellmate. Hagen initially got along with his new cell partner. Soon, however, his cellmate returned from lunch, punched Hagen and told him that he had to “get out of his cell” because he had heard bad things about Hagen.

Hagen told a guard that he did not want to cell in, because he would be assaulted if he returned to the cell. The guard ordered him to cell in anyway. He refused and was sent to segregation.

Hagen told the disciplinary hearings officer that he refused to cell in because his cellmate intended to assault him. Nevertheless, Hagen was found guilty and sanctioned to eight days in segregation.

While in segregation, Hagen wrote his counselor and a mental health provider, requesting a transfer to avoid future violent assaults at SRCI. Soon after Hagen was released from segregation and assigned to a new unit, eight white supremacist gang members threatened him on June 21, 2011. They told Hagen to leave the unit by lunch the next day or they would “take him out.” Hagen spoke to a lieutenant and was moved to a different complex the next day. The moved changed nothing. Gang members throughout SRCI knew to assault Hagen.

Despite knowing that white supremacist gangs were trying to hurt Hagen, and that Cheyenne Evans was a gang affiliate with Lapich and Miskell, SRCI staff moved Evans into Hagen’s cell on October 6, 2011. His first words to Hagen were “We are going to have a problem.”

Evans and Hagen fought later that day. Evans threw Hagen to the ground, punched him and stomped him with his boots. Hagen was hospitalized for his injuries. Hagen was sanctioned to serve 120 days in segregation for fighting with Evans. While in segregation Hagen learned that the white supremacist gangs had ordered Hagen “taken out” on sight. He told Foley that he was afraid of being assaulted or killed. After an investigation, Foley found Hagen’s fear was substantiated. On October 27, 2011, he alerted several prison officials that he had confirmed from several sources that Hagen’s life would be in danger if he were returned to SRCI’s general population.

Foley and other officials finally decided to transfer Hagen to another prison. Foley instructed Hagen to submit three Inmate Conflict Reports for Lapich, Miskell and Evans. Hagen did so, asserting that he was afraid for his life because Lapich, Miskell and Evans were planning to kill him or have him killed. Prison officials allowed Lapich, Miskell and Evans to learn that Hagen reported their murder conspiracy, submitted the conflict forms, and requested a transfer, according to federal court filings.

An “institution level conflict” was approved, recognizing that Hagen could not safely remain in the same prison with Lapich, Miskell or Evans. Staff were informed of the conflicts and ordered to ensure that Hagen not be placed in a cell with any of the prisoners he had a reported conflict with.

Foley expressly alerted segregation staff of the conflict and Hagen’s impending transfer. He ordered that Hagen not be released from segregation under any circumstances. Foley’s orders were ignored. On February 2,2012, Hagen was released from segregation and assigned to Lapich’s cell. Hagen alerted guard Donald Harris that he could not reside with Lapich because they had a pre-existing conflict. Nevertheless, Harris ordered Hagen to “cell in” with Lapich.

Soon after Hagen entered the cell, audible screams could be heard. Harris heard, but ignored, the screams and did not take any action to respond, according to court filings. “Less than two hours after Mr. Hagen’s arrival, at 10:05 a.m., Lapich rang the emergency bell in his cell and reported to Officer Harris that Mr. Hagen had fallen off of his bed,” the federal complaint alleges. “Harris found Mr. Hagen on the floor of the cell in a pool of blood and called for a medical response. Lapich had severely beaten Mr. Hagen and stomped on his head, breaking Mr. Hagen’s nose, fracturing his orbits, and causing significant bleeding and swelling in Mr. Hagen’s brain. Boot marks were visible on Mr. Hagen’s head.”

Hagen was airlifted to a hospital where he was pronounced dead the next day. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was blunt force head trauma. Criminal charges were brought against Lapich for Hagen’s murder. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.38].

Hagen’s widow brought federal suit on behalf his estate against several prison officials, alleging that they were deliberately indifferent to her husband’s safety. She sought $7.5 million in compensatory damages, unspecified punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

She also filed a state negligence and wrongful death action against the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). The suit alleged that negligence was a “substantial factor” in Hagen’s death and that ODOC fails to properly: protect prisoners, train employees, and effectively manage gangs. Hagen sought $7.5 million in compensatory damages in that action as well.

In an obvious, but highly unusual, attempt to remove the issue, and damning evidence, of liability from jurors, ODOC quickly acknowledged liability in its first response to the state suit. ODOC admitted that guards violated policy and that negligence was a “substantial factor” in Hagen’s death.

“The state has acknowledged that their actions caused his death and he would still be alive today if they had followed the procedures in place or had adequate policies to prevent this from happening,” said Dennis Steinman, the attorney who represents Hagen’s estate and widow in both suits. “The DOC has allowed this systemic problem to continue by turning a blind eye and failing to institute policies to protect prisoners throughout the state. This is not only about Snake River. This is about prisons statewide.”

On March 31, 2015, prison officials agreed to pay Hagen’s estate $450,000 to settle both the state and federal actions. Other than its previous admission of negligence, the settlement and payment “is not to be construed as an admission of liability.” It did nothing to improve ODOC’s gang management policies and practices, end this “systemic problem,” or “institute policies to protect prisoners throughout the state.”

See: Hagen v. Williams, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:14-cv-00165-MC; Hagen v. Oregon Department of Corrections, Malheur County Circuit Court (OR), Case No. 140710281; and Hagen v. Oregon Department of Corrections, Marion County Circuit Court (OR), Case No. 14C11118.


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Related legal case

Hagen v. Williams