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ACLU Sues El Paso County Jail over Death of Inmate


May 10, 2001

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) announced today the filing of a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the family of Andrew Spillane, a pre-trial detainee who died on May 10, 2000, in the El Paso County Jail, shortly after deputies pepper-sprayed him in the confined space of a special detention cell.


According to the ACLU and Amnesty International, pepper spray has been linked to more than 60 cases of in-custody deaths in recent years. A coroner's report last year identified pepper spray as a contributing cause of Spillane's death, but it attributed the primary cause to seizures caused by delirium tremens: alcohol withdrawal.


"This was a senseless and entirely preventable death," said Gerald McDermott, a Denver attorney who is representing Spillane's family as an ACLU volunteer cooperating attorney. "With his obvious symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal, Andy should have been in the hospital, not in the jail's infirmary, and certainly not in a special detention cell. He needed intravenous administration of medication, not pepper spray."


"Jail authorities have a legal obligation to provide medical care for an inmate's serious medical needs," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "The health standards for county jails recognize that severe alcohol withdrawal is a potentially fatal condition that requires immediate hospitalization. In this case, the jail utterly failed to provide Andy with the medical care that he desperately needed."

According to the lawsuit, Spillane was held as a pre-trial detainee on a charge of growing marijuana plants in his apartment. When he arrived at the jail around 7 am, he showed obvious symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal. Records showed that Spillane was hallucinating, bouncing off the walls, and becoming increasingly agitated and irrational. In addition, jail authorities were on notice that Spillane had a history of seizures during withdrawal. Nevertheless, the lawsuit alleges, it took ten hours before Spillane was sent to the jail's infirmary.


"Even after Andy was finally sent to the jail infirmary," Silverstein said, "he still didn't get the medical care he needed. Instead of sending him to the hospital, jail authorities wound up treating his symptoms as a behavior problem rather than a medical problem. Deputies removed him from the infirmary, locked him in a special detention cell, and eventually pepper sprayed him. When he was unable to follow jailers' instructions, they pepper sprayed him again."


According to the lawsuit, the deputies then entered the cell, laid Spillane face-down on the concrete floor, handcuffed his hands behind his back, and shackled his legs. Spillane immediately had trouble breathing, and he died very shortly afterwards.

After an investigation, the Sheriff's Department concluded that the deputies had conducted themselves according to their training; that all jail policies had been followed; and that deputies had done nothing wrong.


"This case raises very serious questions about the policies and practices of the Sheriff's Department," Silverstein said. "If what happened to Andy Spillane reflects the deputies' training, then they need to be retrained. If this incident did not violate any jail policies, then the policies are egregiously flawed."


"This case raises equally important questions about whether the jail's medical unit is adequately staffed with competent personnel," Silverstein added. "Two weeks ago the Sheriff's Department and its medical contractor settled one wrongful death suit. In the year since Andy Spillane died, three additional inmates have died in the El Paso County Jail. How many deaths and how many lawsuits will it take?"


The suit, Gahagan v. Board of County Commissioners, was filed in state district court in Colorado Springs. Defendants named in the lawsuit include the Board of County Commissioners for El Paso County; Sheriff John Anderson; Correctional Medical Services, Inc., which provides the jail's medical care on a contract basis; and several individual deputies and CMS employees.

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