The Colorado Department of Corrections will pay $3 million to the family of a mentally ill man who died after guards in a Pueblo, Colorado, prison ignored his seizures.
A disturbing video captures the ordeal of 35-year-old Christopher Lopez, who lay face down on the floor of his cell, virtually unresponsive, while guards try to get him to get up and come to the door of his cell to have handcuffs placed on him. In the video, one corrections officer, whose name tag identifies him as Lt. Wasui, says that Lopez may have “some medical conditions, but he does respond to us.”
That statement is clearly inaccurate, as the video to that point shows that all Lopez does is make several weak attempts to raise his head when talked to.
After trying unsuccessfully to get Lopez to respond, an extraction team is sent into his cell. They place Lopez in handcuffs, and cover his face with a spit mask. He is then shackled to a chair. A medical worker can be heard saying that his blood pressure is okay, but no one seems concerned that Lopez is, even to the untrained eye, obviously not well. After a while, Lopez is removed from the chair, and returned to a cell, where guards talk about super important things — like going to Walmart — as he lies on the floor, trembling from seizures.
As guards and other correctional center employees talk and laugh, Lopez lies dying from a condition known as hyponatremia, which occurs due to too low sodium levels in the body. At one point, Cheryl Neumeister, a mental health worker, says to Lopez, “I can see you breathing.” But, by that time Lopez was already dead.
Christopher Lopez suffered from schizophrenia, and, according to the Denver Post, had been imprisoned because of a series of minor crimes he committed in his teens and 20’s. The lawsuit, filed by his family, says that Lopez’s condition was caused by too many psychotropic drugs, used to treat his schizophrenia.
The Department Of Corrections says it does not condone the actions of employees in Lopez’s case.
The Colorado Department of Corrections issued a statement on the Lopez case, saying,
We wish to reiterate that Department does not condone the actions or omissions of the employees involved. Their actions were well outside of the Department’s established training, policies, and practice.
Three employees, including mental health worker Neumeister, were fired following the incident. Another five were subjected to disciplinary action. David Lane, a lawyer representing Lopez’s family, issued a statement, saying,
The death of Christopher Lopez was easily preventable and was caused by a mentality that the lives of prisoners are worthless. Hopefully, this settlement sends a message not just to Colorado prison authorities but to prison and jail authorities all over the country that the human beings they incarcerate must be treated like human beings.
According to The Guardian, prison officials did not notify the state health department of Lopez’s death for 17 months. They are required by law to do so within one day. When the Denver Post called the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to inquire about the incident, the department opened an inquiry into Lopez’s death.
The U.S. prison system is filled with mentally ill prisoners. An April, 2014, report by the Treatment Advocacy Center finds that in 44 out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., a prison or jail in the state holds more mentally ill inmates than the largest state mental institution.
Here is an edited version of the six-hour prison video, showing the death of Christopher Lopez. WARNING: The video is graphic, and very disturbing.
H/T: MSN | Image via YouTube screengrab