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Utah prison inmates sue officers after tear gas seeps into cells

The Utah State Prison and surrounding area in Salt Lake County  Friday, March 8, 2013.
The Utah State Prison and surrounding area in Salt Lake County Friday, March 8, 2013.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah prison inmates feared for their lives after corrections officers released tear gas in the mental health unit that seeped into their cells through the ventilation system, according to a federal lawsuit.

Officers used a tear gas canister while subduing a prisoner in the Olympus wing in August 2011. Air ducts carried the gas into cells that have no windows or bars, leaving about 150 inmates to breathe noxious gas for 20 minutes, the lawsuit says.

Inmates, who felt burning in their eyes, lungs and skin, "desperately" tried to alert officials by kicking, screaming and repeatedly pressing their emergency response buttons to no avail, the lawsuit says. The unit also houses inmates with severe medical conditions.

"Many of the prisoners thought they were going to die," according to the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed the class-action lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court for five named inmates, along with those currently or formerly housed in the Olympus unit on Aug. 3, 2011. It contends the incident violated prisoners' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.

“This incident is an egregious civil rights violation committed by the Utah State Prison against a vulnerable, albeit unpopular and largely forgotten class of American citizens,” said Aaron Kinikini, an attorney for the Disability Law Center.

Prison deputy director Mike Haddon said he couldn't comment on pending litigation. But he said corrections officers don't often use tear gas to subdue an inmate. More commonly, they use pepper spray as part of a continuum of force, Haddon said.

"It's not the thing we use right out of the gate," he said. "Probably our most effective tool is our communication. Most of the time we can de-escalate a situation simply by having conversations with the offender that's not complying," he said.

Pepper spray, Haddon said, is a "middle ground" between talking and getting physical with an inmate.

"As soon we go hands on with an offender, that leads to potential injury both for our staff and the inmate as well," he said.

According to the lawsuit, corrections officers made light of the tear gas incident and called inmates "sissies" for complaining.

"Additionally, prison officials threatened inmates with future 'gassings' and told them that 'this is what you get for misbehaving,'" according to the lawsuit.

Prison officials have acknowledged the incident and say that the gas entering the cells was unintentional, according to the lawsuit. But they have not explained the policies and rules that allowed the incident to unfold as it did or provided assurances to prevent it from happening again.

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