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June 22, 2006

The ACLU of Colorado filed suit yesterday against Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, alleging that the Sheriff unjustifiably prohibited ACLU attorneys from conducting confidential interviews with jail prisoners who wanted to speak with the ACLU.

The lawsuit asks for an emergency order prohibiting the Sheriff from barring confidential visits when ACLU staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass returns to the jail in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday to conduct additional interviews.

According to the lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Denver yesterday evening, the ACLU Legal Department is actively investigating complaints from jail prisoners about a host of alleged practices at the jail.

ACLU attorneys spent three days at the jail last week, reviewing documents and conducting interviews. In the midst of the ACLU’s visit, the lawsuit says, Sheriff Vallario announced a new “policy” that prevented Mr. Pendergrass from speaking with three prisoners who had previously expressed an interest in obtaining legal assistance from the ACLU.

Instead of informing prisoners that they had a visit from an attorney, the Sheriff’s deputies instead asked each prisoner the open-ended question, “Who is your attorney?” If a prisoner did not name the ACLU as “his attorney,” then the Sheriff prohibited the visit.
“The prisoners were not informed that an ACLU attorney was at the jail requesting a visit,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “We believe that if the prisoners had been asked if they wanted to speak with an ACLU attorney, they would have said yes.”

“Of course, prisoners held on criminal charges will usually answer that ‘their attorney’ is their criminal defense attorney,” Silverstein continued. “This is especially true because ACLU attorneys have not yet agreed to represent any of the jail prisoners. Nevertheless, the prisoners have a legal right to meet with attorneys to seek legal advice and discuss the possibility of representation. And ACLU lawyers have a legal right to meet with prisoners who wish to speak with us.”

According to Silverstein, one prisoner who had been corresponding extensively with the ACLU saw through the Sheriff’s “trick question.” He apparently advised other prisoners in that section of the jail to identify the ACLU when asked “Who is your attorney?” ACLU attorneys were able to interview prisoners housed in that section of the jail, Silverstein said. But the three prisoners the ACLU was prohibited from interviewing are housed in a different section.

Silverstein said the Sheriff was unable to provide a copy of the “policy” that is challenged in the lawsuit. “Neither prisoners nor criminal defense attorneys with years of practice in Glenwood Springs have heard of this policy before,” Silverstein said. “I hope this policy was not invented for the purpose of interfering with the ACLU’s ability to investigate complaints about the Sheriff’s treatment of prisoners in the jail.”

A declaration filed with the lawsuit [link to Declaration] includes a 15-point list of allegations the ACLU is investigating, including:
• unjustified use of restraint chairs as punishment, for too long, without appropriate involvement of medical personnel;

• abusive and unjustified use and threats to use pepperball guns, pepper and tasers on prisoners for minor noncompliance;

• arbitrary imposition of harsh

disciplinary measures for minor infractions, without due process, and without following the Inmate Handbook;

• unjustifiable delay of medical attention and decontamination of prisoners who have been subjected to pepper spray or pepperball pellets, in some cases forcing them to remain strapped in the restraint chair while contaminated with pepper spray or pepper dust;

“Prisoners in other jails have died in the restraint chair,” Silverstein said, “and pepper spray and tasers have been associated with at least 200 in-custody deaths in this country.” The ACLU is particularly concerned because the Sheriff has no written policy regulating the use of restraint chairs, pepperball guns, or tasers in the jail.” Silverstein said that in response to ACLU requests under the open records laws, the Sheriff replied that he had no written training materials about the proper use of these devices, nor any written literature or guidelines from the manufacturers.

In order to continue its investigation, the ACLU asked the federal district court rule on its motion for a temporary restraining order by Monday at the latest, so that Mr. Pendergrass can interview prisoners when he returns to the jail on Tuesday.

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