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$525,000 Settlement for Loss of Federal Prisoner’s Eye

In August 2018, a former prisoner at USP Lewisburg accepted a $525,000 settlement to resolve a civil rights action alleging guards violated Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy by using excessive force against him, resulting in the loss of an eye.

James Hunt was held in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at Lewisburg. His cellmate had several disputes with guards, which resulted in them denying Hunt and his cellmate out-of-cell recreation. Guards came to their cell on X-block on January 14, 2016, and noticed a piece of paper covering the window of the door.

Hunt heard a guard call for assistance. Lieutenants Jason Seeba and Alfred Scott responded with other staff members. Hunt and his cellmate were sitting on their respective bunks as the guards spoke outside their cell. When a guard opened the door’s food slot, Hunt saw a clear shield. It disappeared quickly and the barrel of a pepper ball gun appeared.

Before Hunt could react, Lt. Seeba fired the pepper ball gun. The projectile hit Hunt in his right eye; he moved to lie on the floor, and Seeba shot him in the back of the head with another pepper ball and several more times in the body. Guards then threw in a grenade-like device that exploded and caused damage to the hearing in Hunt’s left ear.

Guards ordered Hunt and his cellmate to strip naked and cuff up through the food slot. Once they did so and laid on the floor, guards moved them to a hard restraints room. Despite blood oozing from his eye and his requests for medical care, staff did not provide Hunt with care for several hours.

He was taken to a hospital where it was determined the eye was inoperable. Doctors later decided that Hunt would not regain vision in his right eye, and it was surgically removed in July 2016. He experienced problems with an ill-fitting prosthesis and pain from the injury. This was at least the second time a BOP prisoner at Lewisburg lost an eye due to use of force by guards. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.26].

In his federal complaint, Hunt claimed Seeba had previously been involved in several incidents involving excessive force, and pointed to other lawsuits to show BOP officials were well aware of his propensity to be violent and engage in unnecessary force. Hunt also noted that the use of a pepper ball gun is supposed to be a last resort under the BOP’s use of force policy. 

Pursuant to that policy, guards are to use “confrontational avoidance.” In this case, guards never spoke with or gave orders to Hunt and his cellmate before Seeba fired the pepper ball gun. The BOP policy also requires guards to use pepper spray if a prisoner is not compliant with orders. When a pepper ball gun is authorized for use, it must be aimed at “center mass” and never at a prisoner’s face. The use of pepper balls was even more questionable because Hunt’s medical record documented that he was asthmatic.

The parties reached a $525,000 settlement just seven months after Hunt filed suit in federal court. He was represented by attorney Jennifer Tobin.

“We understand that they will still use [non-lethal weapons] and there could be certain circumstances when it would be appropriate, but when [prisoners] are in their cell and complying, it shouldn’t be used,” said David Sprout with the Lewisburg Prison Project. “Hopefully, this lawsuit got someone’s attention in Washington,” he added. See: Hunt v. Seeba, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00116-YK-SES. 


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Related legal case

Hunt v. Seeba