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$14,000 Paid by California to Mentally Ill Prisoner Who Alleged Repeated Maulings by Guards

by Douglas Ankney

How blatant is a violation of rights when a prisoner who is both mentally ill and proceeding pro se wins his case? The answer for California prisoner Benjamin Justin Brownlee arrived in the form of two settlement checks from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), paying a total of $14,000 to settle his claims that guards at California Healthcare Facility subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

On February 25, 2021, counsel for defendant CDCR employees entered their first agreement with Brownlee, exchanging $7,000 for his voluntary dismissal of two lawsuits. See: Brownlee v. Lee, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00696; and Brownlee v. Henry, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:19-cv-02056. Then on July 12, 2022, CDCR finalized another agreement to pay Brownlee an additional $7,000 to settle a third lawsuit. See: Brownlee v. Baughman, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:19-cv-01987.

All three suits were filed pro se in federal court for the Eastern District of California, and stemmed from incidents that occurred in October 2018. First, 10 guards, including Lt. S. Lee, viciously punched, kicked and hit him in the face and head during an emergency cell extraction, Brownlee said, adding that he provided no provocation. Once he was on the floor and in restraints, the beating continued and did not stop until a supervising sergeant intervened.

Brownlee was taken to Emergency Standby Medical Services, where he said several guards again repeatedly punched him while handcuffed to a medical bed. Worse, he said, they then told a medical staffer, Dr. Carson, that no photos were to be taken of Brownlee’s injuries; the beating had left him with cuts and lashes to his face and nose, bruising and bleeding.

The guards also told Brownlee that he would not be taken to an outside medical facility as recommended by Carson. Then, while he waited to receive eight stitches for his injuries, several guards again attacked him, he said. The altercation ended only after Dr. Carson summoned a guard captain.

After the incident, Brownlee was given a disciplinary report charging him with battery on a peace officer. At the disciplinary hearing, he requested video of the incident, as well as testimony from a prisoner who had been in the cell next door and witnessed the altercation. As recalled in his first suit naming Lee, the hearing officer denied both requests. Brownlee was found guilty of the infraction, and all his subsequent appeals were denied.

In his next suit, Brownlee alleged that while experiencing a mental health crisis in his cell in the Enhanced Outpatient Program Psychiatric Services Unit, he was again assaulted by several guards during an emergency cell extraction. He said they shocked him with an electrical shield and beat him while restrained. A guard named D. Henry also squeezed his testicles and penis with full force, he said. After that, Brownlee was again written a disciplinary report and denied an opportunity to present a defense at the hearing. He was once more found guilty, and his subsequent appeals were denied.

In his last suit, Brownlee alleged that his cell was searched while he was absent, and items were taken that he was permitted to have. When he reached through a food port to get a guard’s attention and ask why, Brownlee said a guard named Katz pepper sprayed him and slammed the food port, breaking his arm. Katz then wrote a disciplinary report that Brownlee attempted to grab his security belt. Apparently, Brownlee again requested the video of the incident for his hearing, but that request was also denied.

The two settlement agreements fully satisfied all three of Brownlee’s claims. 

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